Troublesome Topic: Examples of Atonement Without Blood Sacrifices

Lesson 17 of 21

What about the four examples of the word “atonement” used in connection to willful sins?

In all four of those uses no blood sacrifice was made! Atonement came through another means. Of the four uses I am speaking about, one refers to the golden calf incident (Ex 32:30), two refer to the action of Aaron to stop the plague that was killing the Israelite people for complaining against Moses and Aaron (Numb 16:46 & 47), and one refers to Phinehas who killed two adulterers with his spear (Numbers 25).

Example # 1 Moses After the Golden Calf Was Made

After the people convinced Aaron to build a golden calf and then worshipped it, giving it credit for bringing them out of Egypt, we would assume that a trainload of sacrifices would have to be made! But we would be wrong. Not one animal was sacrificed for their atonement. 3,000 people died that day, and soon after that many more were struck with a plague, but punishment did not bring atonement. Look at the words of Moses in Ex 32:20; He told the Israelite people, “You have sinned a great sin, so now I will go up to YHVH, perhaps I can make atonement for your sins.” So we see that atonement came, not through millions of sacrifices, and not through punishment, but because Moses pleaded with God for mercy. In the end, the guilty received death but the rest of the nation was spared from destruction by the pleading of Moses.

In Ex 32:32 we see that Moses did not want his own life to be spared if God chose to punish the people without showing any mercy. In Numbers 14 we read of another incident which caused God to be so angry with the Israelites that He wanted to destroy all of them and start over with Moses. But once again, Moses intervened on their behalf and God relented from destroying all of them, although there was punishment for the guilty. I think God used these two situations to test Moses, the leader of the people. He wanted to see if Moses truly understood the heart and mind of God; He wanted to see how well Moses understood the balance between the holiness and mercy of God. In each test Moses showed that he did understand that balance. He was a leader that was a reflection of God’s character. Today some people do not see much mercy and grace in the Old Testament, but if you begin looking for them, mercy and grace permeate both the Old and New Testaments.

Example #2 Aaron After the People Questioned the Leadership of Moses and Aaron

In the case recorded in Numbers 16, the people did a very foolish thing. The day after Korah and his 250 followers had been swallowed up by the earth for open rebellion, the people accused Moses and Aaron of wrongdoing. They said, “You have killed the Lord’s people.” God was angry and began to sweep across the people with a deadly plague. Moses told Aaron to take his censor of incense and run quickly to place himself between those who had died and those who were still living. Aaron did this and the plague stopped. Numbers 16:46 and 47 both use the word “atonement” to describe what Aaron accomplished with the use of incense, which represented the totality of one’s relationship with God. So here again, it was not a blood sacrifice that brought atonement, but someone who had a good relationship with God, who was pleading for God to stop the punishment of His people.

Example #3 Phinehas

Numbers chapter 25 tells us that right after the people of Israel had been lured into sexual immorality and the worship of Baal Peor, and while the people were gathered in front of the tabernacle, weeping and seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness, one man took a Midianite woman into his tent in full view of Moses and the people. It can rightly be assumed that he did this in order to have sex with her. While everyone else stared in shocked silence, a priest and grandson of Aaron named Phinehas, took action. He ran (possibly to his own tent) and grabbed a spear and then ran to the guilty man’s tent and entered it. Phinehas drove his spear through both of them at the same time. God was pleased with Phinehas for taking action and He made a covenant with Phinehas and his descendants. Verse 13 indicates that God accepted the actions of Phinehas as atonement.

Atonement for whom? The adulterers were dead. This was atonement for two groups of people; it was for all those who were guilty of participating in the immorality and idolatry associated with the worship of Baal Peor, and also for the innocent ones who had not participated, but who would suffer hardship when judgment came upon the entire community. Indeed a plague had already started to take people’s lives, but the action of Phinehas stopped the plague and saved many lives, both guilty and innocent. Therefore, this is an example of atonement being necessary for an unintentional sin, as well as an example of the mercy of God being shown to people who deserved punishment. The seemingly extreme zeal of Phinehas matched the extreme evil of the adulterers and his act brought atonement. But notice that atonement was granted without any sacrificial animal being offered on the altar.

Example #4 David and Bathsheba

Psalms 51:1


(To the brilliant overseer. A Psalm associated with DAVID, when NATHAN the prophet, went to him after he had gone in to BATHSHEBA.)

Be merciful to me, ELOHIM, according to your merciful kindness;

Go to footnote number

according to the multitude of your compassions of the womb,

Go to footnote number

wipe out my rebellious sin.


(To the leader [of music]. A Psalm written by THE ONE WHO IS LOVED when the prophet GIVEN [BY GOD] went to him after he had sex with DAUGHTER OF AN OATH.)

O CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS, have mercy on me, according to your merciful kindness; according to the multitude of your mother-like compassions, obliterate my rebellious sin [from your memory].

Psalm 51 is David’s confession after his affair with Bathsheba. It is amazing that we have a record of his sin and of his confession. He starts by asking God to have mercy on him; so He knew that throwing himself on the mercies of God was his only option. Then he asks God to “blot out” his transgressions, but he does not say which sacrifice he will use to bring that about. In verse two he asks for cleansing from sin, but once again he does not say what means can be used to achieve that cleansing. In verse seven he says, “cleanse me with hyssop.” Hyssop was used for cleaning of skin disorders and when someone had become contaminated by touching a dead body so that is not what we would expect to be used as a means of forgiveness for a serious sin.

Psalms 51:16


For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give; you are not pleased by a burnt offering.


For in a case like this, you do not desire a sacrifice, or else I would readily give you one; in this case even a burnt offering would not quell your anger.

Here David shows that he understood the inadequacy of animal sacrifices. David knew there was no sacrifice he could offer that would atone for his willful sin.

Psalms 51:17


The sacrifices of ELOHIM are a broken heart; a broken and crushed heart, O ELOHIM, You will not consider worthless.


That is because, in a case like this, the sacrifices that you, THE CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS, will accept are nothing more and nothing less than a broken heart; yes, a heart that is broken over sin and a spirit that is crushed with guilt are the only things that You, O CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS, will not reject as futile and ineffective.

Psalms 51:18


In your accepting favor, do good to ZION; build up the walls of JERUSALEM.


In your willingness to show favor and be accepting, I ask you to carry out that which pleases you for THE SIGN POST (which indicates where you are at work and what your work looks like); and I ask you to increase the strength of THE PLACE OF PEACEFUL FOUNDATIONS.

Psalms 51:19


Then you will be pleased with righteous sacrifices, with offerings that are completely burned up. Then they will sacrifice bulls on your altar.


After you do that you will be pleased with the right sacrifice for situations like mine, one that is completely consumed for you. At that time the most expensive type of sacrifice will be offered to You.

David Knew Something Better Was Coming

Not only did David know that the sacrificial system had no sacrifice for willful sinning, he realized that this would change some day. Notice the use of future verbs in verse 19. He was convinced that one day there would be “righteous sacrifices” which would atone for all types of sins. He did not know what that sacrifice would look like, but he knew it would come.

David deserved to die, but even the cases of sexual sin where a person would not receive the death penalty are instructive here. Unless a restitution payment needed to be paid, when a person committed one of the sexual sins that did not bring the death sentence, there was no command to offer a sacrifice for atonement. I think none was mentioned because no such sacrifice was available!


So we see that, in all four of these cases, there was no sacrifice that could be offered, yet atonement was granted apart from an animal sacrifice!

The next lesson in the full series on Covenants is Life Lessons from the Burnt Offering



This is a very important word in the Hebrew Old Testament. It has a variety of meanings which, in English, include the following: “favor, goodness, kindness, mercy, affection, love, piety.” The favorite rendition by most translators is arguable “loving kindness.” I have chosen to use “merciful kindness” because I think it does a better job of portraying two of the key concepts behind the word.


This word means both “womb” and “compassion.” It usually refers to the compassion and tenderness that a woman feels toward her newborn child from the moment it comes from the womb.