Richard W. Coffen  |  20 May 2017  |

Throughout life, Ancient Near Eastern males accrued a savings account of acquired honor, which they felt duty-bound to maintain. Shechem, a Canaanite Don Juan, had raped Dinah. Her brothers, Simeon and Levi, wreaked vengeance upon the male inhabitants to restore the diminished honor of Jacob’s family (Genesis 34:2-31). God tried to stanch such bloodbaths by reiterating the ancient concept of lex talionis: “You must show no pity for the guilty! Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21, NLT).[1]

Dishonor, Sin, and Forgiveness

The concept of depreciated honor underpins the scriptural concept of transgression. Instead of glorifying (Hebrew kābôd has the “control meaning” of weight)[2] YHWH, sinners lessen his honor. Such an insult, according to ancient Near Eastern mindset, required restoration by bloody vengeance. Therefore, once sacrificial blood flowed, God forgave (Leviticus 4:26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; Numbers 15:28). The same concept finds support in the New Testament: “Without shedding of blood is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22). Bloody violence was the sine qua non of forgiveness.

Omnipotence and Forgiveness

Divine omnipotence, according to friend Theo, means that God can do anything and everything. That being the case, we can do that which ostensibly God can’t do. He can not forgive apart from the death of a sacrificial animal or of a human (Jesus). However, we can forgive without resorting to bloody vengeance.

What in YHWH’s character necessitates (1) slitting the throat of an animal incapable of moral offenses, (2) splattering its warm blood, and (3) burning its carcass as a “sweet savour” to God’s nose (Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:18, 25, 41; Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17)? Is the slaughter of his own Son essential for atonement? Why would a deity do what God did in and through the ancient sacrificial system as well as through Jesus Christ, “lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36; cf. 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6, 12; 7:14; 13:18)?

Must Jesus die in order for God to forgive? Yes—but a nuanced affirmative.

The Cultural Accommodation Hypothesis

We Westerners would experience a high degree of culture shock were we transported to the time of Zilpah. John Calvin explained that in Scripture God knelt down and lisped baby talk,[3] accommodating himself to that society. Our infinite God translated his infinite ideas and self-revelation into language and object lessons that finite ancient Near Easterners could assimilate. Today, we Westerners need God’s accommodated self-revelation re-accommodated so that it can make sense to us. If God’s message were to make sense at that time (ancient) and in that culture (Near Eastern), then he must use terms familiar to them.

Ancient Near Eastern society was an agonistic culture, and as such prized competitiveness. Males, especially, were aggressive. In Western society everyone tries to get along. Fellow church member Peter told me, “I know we disagree politically, but I love you because you’re my brother.” Most of us “agree to disagree.” People in agonistic cultures (Greek agōn means “contest” or “competition”[4]) engaged in verbal duels of challenge and riposte as well as ever-spiraling blood vengeance.

Honor and shame also constituted central concerns in the ancient Near East. Honor—like so many other things in the ancient world—was considered a limited good. If A openly acquired honor, then B publicly lost honor. Therefore, when Jesus gained honor in public, the questioning Pharisee gained shame.

Regaining Honor Via Proto-crucifixion

David had ascended the throne. For three successive years famine ravaged the kingdom. After praying, the monarch learned that the calamity had occurred because his predecessor, Saul, had slaughtered the Gibeonites, who were under a perpetual covenant of peace (shālôm) with the Israelites (2 Samuel 21:1). David hadn’t authorized the Gibeonite remnant to settle the score. When asked what would bring about national shālôm, they requested seven of Saul’s male descendants, whom they would impale (verse 6). This proto-crucifixion of seven (numeral signifying completion) males was to effect at-one-ment (akōper [make amends; appease]—verse 3) “before YHWH” (verse 6). Note the religious overtones: (1) an atonement was caused (2) in front of YHWH (3) by human sacrifice by proto-crucifixion.

So What?

What, then, might those obligatory ancient animal bloody sacrifices and the need for the death of Jesus say to 21st-century Westerners? It’s almost as if we were peering at an alien culture in a galaxy far, far away. We find those ancient practices both psychologically repugnant and morally offensive. Would you attend a church that each Sabbath killed, dismembered, and burned a cat? What if that were done to a person? Maybe next Sabbath you would be the sacrifice!

Two concepts become clear.

First, in the Old Testament, YHWH cared so much for mutinous humanity that he acculturated (adapted to a different and strange culture) himself to ancient Near Eastern thought, pressing into service the object lesson of animal sacrifice. Since bloody vengeance was a way by which dyadic males maintained and/or regained honor, an attenuated form of blood vengeance marked the cultus. Males who’d offended YHWH’s honor spilled the blood of animals in order to reinstate spiritual homeostasis. “The priest is to make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord . . . , and he will be forgiven” (Leviticus 19:22, NET).

Second, in the New Testament, incarnate Deity (a.k.a. Jesus “son of man” and “son of God”) became enculturated (grew up inside a society) within an agonistic culture, revealing on the cross God’s eagerness to forgive. Had God not provided atonement via bloody violence, first-century dyadic personalities might well have perceived him as having deficient honor.

A Possible Protest

A possible argument: “We mustn’t minimize evil. It is so heinous only bloodshed can destroy it. Sin is not comparable to overstaying an expired parking meter. Rather, sin is so heinous it’s barely approaching the level of pre-meditated, first-degree murder, which in our culture requires the death penalty. This is what God, in Jesus, paid in our stead.”

One mustn’t minimize the gravity of sin. God takes it seriously; so should we. Nevertheless, the objection isn’t as cogent as may initially appear.

First, the analogy with Western jurisprudence makes unwarranted assumptions. Heinous crimes requiring capital punishment do not allow for substitution. The sentencing judge or the murder victim’s sister can’t volunteer to die in the guilty party’s place. That would be a travesty of justice!

Second, the death penalty is not the prerequisite for forgiveness. Dylann Roof, during a Bible study meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, pulled out a .45-caliber handgun and murdered nine worshipers. Nadine Collier, who lost her 70-year-old mother, Ethel Lance, told this pre-meditated killer, “I forgive you.”[5] Collier forgave Roof, even though he still must pay the penalty for his crimes. Forgiveness is an intrapersonal psychological act, whereas the consequence for a crime is a sociological punitive act expressing society’s moral revulsion.

So, did Jesus have to be psychologically traumatized as well as physically tortured by flogging and then death by crucifixion in order for God to forgive? To those living in ancient Jerusalem and accustomed to reclaiming degraded honor by bloodshed, the answer is Yes. To someone living in Portland, Oregon, in 2018 and accustomed to understanding forgiveness as a psychological act, the answer is No.

Third, sin as an outrage to divine honor, demanding blood vengeance in order to restore shālôm, is only one of many biblical metaphors for the human predicament. Other metaphors include: (1) Sin is sickness, but medical practitioners no longer prescribe, as they once did, bloodletting. (2) Sin is a fractured psychological relationship, which has the potential of being exacerbated but hardly restored by bloodshed—at least in our society. Indeed, violence may trigger a cycle of savagery. (3) Sin is a heavy load that one carries. Killing the burden bearer would end that person’s being heavy-laden but would solve more than intended! (4) Sin is missing the mark (as in archery) or sailing past the intended harbor (as in navigating). The problem isn’t rectified by slaying the archer or the pilot! (5) Sin is a stain (impurity) that must be purged. However, laundering doesn’t entail splattering blood on the fabric, which would only worsen the splotch.

Fourth, on the one hand, our objector shouldn’t ignore the cultural context of the ancient Near East, which was the social milieu of Scripture writers. In that culture, seriously denigrated honor necessitated blood vengeance. On the other hand, the ancient Near Eastern mindset mustn’t be imported into 21st-century Western society.

The Example and Cost of Forgiveness

Through costly example, God made it abundantly clear that forgiveness doesn’t come easily. Divine honor, injured by human wickedness, was said to become assuaged via the commonly accepted route—violent atonement. Because honorable males settled the score by way of violence in order to reinstate shālôm, that’s what an honorable God was perceived to do. By means of bloody animal sacrifices and torture by crucifixion, God graphically demonstrated that he’d taken the initiative to bring about at-one-ment and at tremendous personal cost. God would do whatever it might take to communicate with humans—historically, those living in the ancient Near East—in order to communicate his fervor to forgive.

Although 21st-century Westerners achieve pardon through psychological means and without bloodshed, we recognize nonetheless that at-one-ment is costly, taking its toll on the psyche of the one doing the forgiving. Forgiveness—divine or human—isn’t cheap! Never has been; never will be. For some, it seems morally impossible.

On July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky entered the Cheshire, Connecticut, home of Dr. William Petit. They tried to kill him, his wife Jennifer, and two daughters Michaela and Hayley. They failed to murder him but succeeded in slaying the three females, torturing two in the process. On the August 26, 2016, Today show, Dr. Petit asserted, “Never, never forgive evil.”[6]

So, did Jesus have to be psychologically traumatized as well as physically tortured by flogging and then death by crucifixion in order for God to forgive? To those living in ancient Jerusalem and accustomed to reclaiming degraded honor by bloodshed, the answer is Yes. To someone living in Portland, Oregon, in 2018 and accustomed to understanding forgiveness as a psychological act, the answer is No.

In Conclusion

What, then, can we conclude? (1) Historically, so what? Jesus died on the cross sometime during the early A.D. 30s, but so had and would other first-century victims—40 B.C., 2,000 in one day; A.D. 70, 500 daily.[7] (2) Theologically, Jesus’ first-century followers understood his death to be the divine technique for accomplishing at-one-ment. (3) Chronologically, we now have resources to help us transcend cultural differences and come to appreciate God’s proclivity to forgive even if once upon a time he had to demonstrate that penchant by means of a bloody human sacrifice. (4) Morally, if divine forgiveness truly requires carnage, then we are morally superior to God because our acts of forgiveness don’t necessitate a bloody sacrificial victim!


  1. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
  2. Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Old Testament, “Hebew and Chaldee Dictionary,” p. 54; Willem A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 2, pp. 577ff.
  3. Institutes, Book 1, ch. XIII, section 1.
  4. Moisés Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 1, pp. 142ff.
  5. Http://abcnews4.com/archive/son-of-church-shooting-victim-love-the-way-my-mom-would; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/i-forgive-you-relatives-of-charleston-church-victims-address-dylann-roof/?utm_term=.644aa83bbc71 ;http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/inside-charleston-bible-study-massacre.
  6. Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheshire,_Connecticut,_home_invasion_murders; http://time.com/4032204/petit-home-invasion-the-rising; http://www.today.com/parents/home-invasion-survivor-dr-william-petit-announces-run-political-office-t102243. Perhaps he was right if we understand his words literally. We must “never, never forgive evil” but should forgive the evildoer. This sentiment is expressed in the old observation, “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.” Nevertheless, might Dr. Petit’s persistent posttraumatic stress disorder be less severe could he stir up forgiveness?
  7. Http://mb-soft.com/believe/text/crucifix.htm.

    Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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