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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: June 2009

I’m back, and I’m devoting a big chunk of today to catching up on blog stuff.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions enthusiastically attempt to make a case for the Old Testament passover to be an instance of vicarious atonement. Their entire efforts lean on a snippet cut from a single verse, Exodus 12:12.

For those who have not read Pierced for Our Transgressions, the authors’ handling of this is sadly representative of how they handle the entire topic (Penal Substitution) throughout their book. I hope to publish some sort of summary review of that soon.

Exodus 12:12 reads “For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments–I am the LORD.”

Put the authors do not provide this entire verse (which is understandable given how long it is). What is much less acceptable is what they do say. They tell their reader: “…the plague on the firstborn is described specifically as ‘judgment on all the gods of Egypt.'”


That’s not what Exodus 12:12 says at all. It might be a reasonable conclusion to draw if we already believe in Penal Substitution AND we ignore that the Exodus story described an event from 3500 years ago within the context of world-wide idolatry.

When God says “I will strike down the firstborn… AND on the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment,” it means exactly what it says. God will do two things. The firstborn will be struck down and the idols of the Egyptians will be toppled/destroyed, etc. Had the authors quoted the entire verse, it would be more obvious (I hope) that this is what was meant… it’s hard to understand how the destruction of donkeys, goats, etc. could be construed as “judgment upon Egypt’s gods.”Moses did not crater to idolatry, yet his household would have been vulnerable to the plague on the firstborn…so the death of the firstborn could not be merely the way God was executing judgment on the “gods of Egypt.” No. When God says judgment on the “gods of Egypt” would ensue, it means precisely that: the gods of Egypt (the idols) would be destroyed. To someone in 1500 BC, that would make perfect sense. Indeed, the Old Testament has a long history of discussing this judgment on other gods in terms of destruction of the idols to which people bowed(e.g., Jeremiah 50:2, 51:47, Ezekiel 6:6, 30:13, and of course the story of Dagon in 1st Samuel 5:4)

However, it would still be possible for the Old Testament passover to be a vicarious atonement, even if there is absolutely no evidence of it in the actual account. It would be, as Dan Martin put it, extrascriptural conjecture. I made that exactly conjecture in The Gospel You’ve Never Heard.

But recently I realized there is a simple proof that the Old Testament passover could not be a case of vicarious atonement. It is based primarily on the idea that you cannot pay for something with money you don’t have. Or, to put the matter in the language of Calvinist, wrath can only be redirected to an object that would not have otherwise felt it.

This is one of the reasons given for Jesus having to be super-human and sinless. Jesus was taking upon Himself a punishment that He would otherwise not have had to bear. You cannot sacrifice something that is already marked for death. If the idea is that Person(s) A are being delivered from wrath because Person(s) B receive that wrath in their place, then none of the members of B can be members of A or else the situation is not vicarious and would not make much sense as an atonement either.

To use a courtroom analogy, we often think of all of humanity as guilty and subject to punishmen for it (of course, this courtroom drama is never portrayed in the Bible anywhere, but that’s another story). Then an innocent person takes the blame instead. In the case of Jesus the idea is that Jesus was so awesome that He could adequately receive the punishment of millions or billions, etc.

Now, imagine a different courtroom drama where instead some of the guilty stand up and offer to take the punishment for the rest. Well, that makes no sense because they are already slated for punishment. If 20 people are slated for death, one of them cannot stand up and say “Hey, just take me and leave the others alone” because we only see the innocent as being able to take the debt from another. [And, of course, it is not really vicarious to receive the punishment that was due to you.]

So, what does any of this have to do with the Passover? Well, the simple truth is that some of the lambs that were sacrificed were the ones that were slated for death. As I’ve mentioned already (though the authors of PFoT do not give it much ink), not just humans but animals as well were slated for death. It was not merely the firstborn of each Israel household, but also the firstborn donkey, lamb, goat, etc. That means that many of the lambs slaughtered in the passover were themselves going to die anyway. If the firstborn plague were actual wrath that had to be averted, then many of the lambs slaughtered in that massive first passover were themselves already the bearers of judgment.

But we’ve already established that someone who is already bearing judgment cannot atone for others. So, if the passover lambs were meant as vicarious atonement for judgment on Israel, we would reach a contradiction because we would find that someone already bearing judgment (statutorily guilty) was somehow able to atone for others.

Of course, if we allow Exodus 12:12 to mean what is says (in the context of 1500 BC culture), we would not see the passover as a case of vicarious atonement at all, and all the above problems are vanquished.