Numbers 16:41-50Numbers 16:41-50 - Incense and Atonement
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Comments By Frank L. Hoffman - 11 Dec 2000

Dear Friends:

In reading the Hebrew Testament, we often come to the understanding that the only form of atonement was an animal sacrifice, but this isn't the case when we read the passage in Numbers 16:41-50, and in particular verse 46, where Moses directs Aaron to make atonement with incense.  As we read on, we see that the Lord accepts it.  In this case, atonement was made without the shedding of blood.

This appears to be the only situation where this occurred in the Hebrew Text.   Many scholars believe that it was because Aaron used the golden censer reserved for the Day of Atonement, but that doesn't answer the question as to why such a means of atonement was acceptable in this case and not in others.

My personal thoughts are that we are dealing with pure faith and God's grace, much in the same way as repentance coupled with faith in Jesus Christ brings atonement.   If so, then why the emphasis on animal sacrifice?

I would very much like to read your comments, too.

In the Love of the Lord,


Comments by Justin Arnold - 11 Dec 2000

Dear Frank and Mary,

My understanding on vegetarianism and the Bible comes from a different perspective.  The basis being the difference between God and Gods.  In my perspective Yehovah or Yahweh was the God of the Israelites.  In Hebrew, God, when referring to Yehovah, is (EL), but when God made people in their Image, God is (Elohim) a plural form of God.  I belief we are all Gods (EL) and together we form God (ELOHIM) .  If you find this hard to understand I'll explain and give gospel quotes to help further to show you what I believe. Therefore when Yehovah (YHWH) God (EL) of the Israelites commands people to make sacrifices it is not necessarily telling people what to do but a spirit putting a test on a group of people.  Jesus also states that PEOPLE ARE ALL GODS and therefore I think it is clear that appeasement sacrifices to a singular God if a form of wrong doing.

Kind Regards

Justin Arnold

Comments by Mike Shaw - 11 Dec 2000

Dear Frank and Others,

Many of you are already familiar with my research and ideas, so I will not go over why I present my opinion as such here.

I believe that the Ebionites were right, that Sacrifice was a Pagan practice that the Hebrews picked up in Egypt. God slowly weaned them off sacrifice... First, with the Levitical Cult practices that centralized Sacrifice to God alone and not the Pagan deities of Egypt or any other land.  Then, Jesus, the prophet came to condemn sacrifice all together.

I think it is, as told in Genesis, that man's heart is dark.  And thus, we put into our heads that God must be like us in heart as well.  Let me explain:

If someone is in a fender-bender.  They get all excited and want the other person to not only pay for the damages, but we want them to have to pay us punitive damages as well... and, if we could only smack them, that would make us feel better.   But: What if the person was our adult child or someone else we hold dear to our hearts?  We would not ask them to pay, we would say: Oh, never mind, I will take care of it.  This is the same with God.  We are his children and when we make a mistake and apologize, He is quick to forgive us...

Alas, humans too often fail to see that our neighbours are really our brothers and sisters... and we continually demand payment... Yea, we will make 'em pay... they will get theirs......

Our frustrated sense of being hard done by... Our false belief that everyone else is getting away with something and that we are the only ones working hard and to the rules.... Yet, we forget the Golden Rule....

I don't believe God wants sacrifice, nor did He ever command it (Jeremiah 7:22 / Not the NIV version which has changed this passage to read its opposite)... No, God never wanted sacrifice, nor was Jesus a sacrifice... However, if, on a basic and crude level, if it starts a dark hearted person down the spiritual path, then perhaps this mythos serves a purpose; however, when that person really arrives at being truly saved, they will see that it was only a matter of seeing with the heart rather then with the mind alone.

We must have Knowledge and Compassion, for these two together give birth to Wisdom.... and this in turn leads to true Love.

In my opinion, if we look at the Trinitarian Mythos, then Jesus, being the Second part of the Trinity, is God absorbing our Sin Dept, thus, there was no sacrifice other then God not administering our deserved punishment... God could have done this without the Mythos of the Dying and Resurrecting God story, He could have simply forgiven us,... but our dark hearts would not have believed it... We, NOT GOD, needed to see blood flow, for we can not, in our fallen state, believe that such love can exist that forgives unconditionally....

Peace and Eternal Blessings,

Mike Shaw

Comments by Maynard S. Clark - 12 Dec 2000

When I was at Wheaton College, some of the nonconformist students decided that they wanted to explore the "High Anglican" tradition, much at odds stylistically with the "less fancy" Reformed tradition of the College.

Suddenly, among these students, it was "chic" to attend the incense-dangling Anglican church in inner city Chicago.  Of course, I never liked smoke OR incense, and this "sense" of "filling the sanctuary" with "a presence" seemed to me, at least, to be sacrilegious.

Yet, as Frank points out, perhaps there IS some Biblical precedent, after all, at least for the use of incense.

An interesting sidelight, though, also related to my days at Wheaton College, was the controversial presence on campus of ROTC.  I had been blessed with two Mennonite roommates, pacifists, of course, neither of whom had been involved with ROTC.

But in the ROTC program were staffers who were not always in full agreement with the College's "historic positions".  At times it became evident, or at least it appeared at times to be the case, that the College had a foreign military encampment in its midst.

It's odd how one's consciousness could emerge in history at the same time as anti-ROTC demonstrations throughout the United States, even though few of us had much contact with other colleges with ROTC programs.

Yet one of the ROTC staffers was a man who was married to a member of the Wheaton Bible Church, but in his off hours was the President of the local Theosophical Society. (The US headquarters of the Theosophical Society was based in Wheaton, Illinois, oddly enough, and that may have been my first contact with vegetarians while at Wheaton.) This guy thought that I was a friendly fellow who liked people and who asked curious and provocative questions, so he "fessed up" and told me about his Theosophical Society involvements, and his doctrinal conflicts with his wife and her church community.   He also brought me a gift one day of two packages of sacred "cow dung" incense as used in the temples in Madras, India.

Well, perhaps I had a premonition long ago of the "creative.exe" virus, but I had during my sophomore year moved from the brand new Fischer Hall dorm into an old house owned by the college, Lincoln House (later demolished, sadly), which was behind the brand new chapel.

I discovered the old building's unused basement and appropriated it as a student "hangout", sort of a sixties coffeehouse called "Maynard's Basement", painted with bright colors and gifted with student ideas of many kinds.

"Maynard's Basement" gave me an opportunity to burn the sacred cow dung incense in the Lincoln House basement, although I was quickly told, albeit graciously, by the RA's (Resident Advisors) Roger Bitar (to later become an MD) and David Argue (to become a historian, but I think that his brother became a popular Evangelical theologian) that this new sacred cow dung incense from India really stinks "to high heaven" and that it made studying very difficult, and, after all, that's why we ARE (or were) in college.

I'm not sure that the Judaic tradition has exactly the same inspiration as the Indian tradition, but surely one with a scholarly or "comparative" interest ought to note with interest that both traditions have discovered and "elevated" the use of incense in significant ways, for worship.

And the number of interactions with other traditions which COULD have pointed one towards vegetarianism, although in somewhat "unorthodox" ways, is surely, in my opinion, worthy of comment.


Comments by Frank L. Hoffman - 14 Dec 2000

Dear Friends:

As a follow-up to some of the comments, I looked at Norman K. Gottwald's book, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. His contention is that from the way a Biblical passage is written it can be dated and placed in a reference source. He also believes that the Torah is a compilation of various writers and not all the writings of Moses. I personally don't agree with his contentions, for one could also get the same results through a series of editing, particularly if a "school" was reconstructing the sacred literature after the destruction of the temple.

The curious thing to me is that Gottwald ascribes this Numbers 16:35-50 passage entirely to the Priestly (P) writers as he does all the animal sacrifice passages at the beginning of Leviticus, 1:1-7:38. This further compounds the problem of understanding how in similar cases, atonement could be achieved by either the shedding of blood or by incense, and to understand why the incense was not continued without the shedding of blood.

Could the problem be that the human animal is so innately evil, that he has to justify his "superiority" by killing a "lesser" animal, and then try to transfer his own guilt upon the innocent animal's soul, as a way of trying to appease God? And, could it be that God only accepted such an offering because He smelled the true repentance rising up in the smoke. Note what we are told in Genesis 8:13-22, and particularly verse 21. This might help explain the reason for God's concession to eat flesh in Genesis 9:1-4, if Noah and his family also desired to eat the flesh of the sacrificed clean animals. This would also explain the comments in Isaiah 1, and the reason he and God refer to those who sacrifice in an unrepentant manner, murderers (v. 21).

In the Love of the Lord,


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