Propitiation for Sin: The Doctrine of Atonement in the Book of Deuteronomy

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In the previous parts of this study, when we took a look at the Books of Exodus and Numbers, we’ve seen that atonement pertains to sacrifices, to consecration, to stopping or stilling the wrath of God, even when it is already in action (as was the case with Numbers 16).

Now we’ll take a look at what atonement is all about in Deuteronomy. And we find some interesting things in the two references Deuteronomy makes to the Doctrine of Atonement.

Deuteronomy 21

Deuteronomy 21:8 is the first verse in Deuteronomy that mentions atonement, and it pertains to an unsolved murder. If the nation of Israel should find someone murdered, then they are to discover which city is closest to the location of the dead body and the inhabitants of that city are to follow certain procedures to put away the wrath of God:

“If anyone is found slain, lying in the field in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who killed him, 2 then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance from the slain man to the surrounding cities. 3 And it shall be that the elders of the city nearest to the slain man will take a heifer which has not been worked and which has not pulled with a yoke. 4 The elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with flowing water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and they shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to bless in the name of the Lord; by their word every controversy and every assault shall be settled. 6 And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. 7 Then they shall answer and say, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it. 8 Provide atonement, O Lord, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.’ And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood. 9 So you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21:1-9)

The key here is that no one knows who killed the slain man. Yes, in the days of Israel, the theocracy, there were unsolved murders. This is not a tragedy that has only occurred within recent days. The city closest to the slain man was to get a “heifer,” the word here being damalin or δάμαλιν, a word that means young cow or heifer, as the New King James Version translates the word. The council (Grk gerousia) of the city closest to the slain man (traumatia or τῷ τραυματίᾳ, meaning “the wounded (victim)” is to get a young cow. The heifer or young cow “οὐκ εἴργασταικαὶ ἥτις οὐχ εἵλκυσεν ζυγόν,” meaning that the cow has not worked (eirgastaikai comes from ergomai, to work) neither has it drawn (heilkusen comes from helkuo, meaning “to draw”) a yoke or pulled a yoke.

In short, the young cow can’t have done any plowing or any form of servitude or slave labor. This young cow would be in its best shape because any young cow that had done any work in the field could have an injury and surely wouldn’t be in as good a condition. The council of the city (city council) is to go into a rocky valley (φάραγγα τραχεῖαν) and break the cow’s neck (νευροκοπήσουσιν, meaning to break the neck). After the cow’s neck is broken, the city council is to confess that they had no part in the killing and then plead with the Lord to make atonement:

7 Then they shall answer and say, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it. 8 Provide atonement, O Lord, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.’ And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood. (Deuteronomy 21:7-8)

The word for “atonement” in “provide atonement” in verse 8 is hileos or ἵλεως, which is a Hebraism for “God, be gracious,” “God be merciful,” or “God be pleased” (or propitious), referring to the Lord’s acceptance of the young cow whose neck has been broken to atone for the unsolved murder and the sin upon the land. When the Lord says that “atonement will be given” if the Israelites follow His procedure, the word the Lord uses here is ἐξιλασθήσεται or exilasthesetai, which is the same word we’ve seen over and over again in the Old Testament to refer to propitiation, ceasing the anger and wrath of Deity (God, of course).

In Deuteronomy 21:9, the Lord tells Israel that it will put away the innocent blood from among them if they do what is good and pleasing before the Lord their God. The phrase τὸ αἷμα τὸ ἀναίτιον is “the blood of the innocent,” referring to the fatally wounded victim who has been slain and found. The phrase τὸ καλὸν καὶ τὸ ἀρεστὸν means “the good and the pleasing,” and the nation can atone for its sin through the death of the cow for the sin committed. Even though Israel is innocent of the slain man’s death, blood has been shed – and the Lord demands atonement for the shedding of innocent blood. When the murderer was unknown, the city had to make atonement for the sin so that the wrath of God would stay away and would not demand life for the slain life.

Deuteronomy 32

In Deuteronomy 32, we find Moses speaking the words of a song before he

is told by the Lord to view the Promised Land from afar and go die on

Mount Nebo because he did not obey the voice of the Lord. Moses was rather old when he died, but potentially, he could’ve seen the Promised Land if it weren’t for his disobedience. Along the way, though, he mentions that the Lord will make atonement for His people – and he mentions the Gentiles, of all things:

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people;

For He will avenge the blood of His servants,

And render vengeance to His adversaries;

He will provide atonement for His land and His people.”

44 So Moses came with Joshua the son of Nun and spoke all the words of this song in the hearing of the people. 45 Moses finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 and he said to them: “Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law. 47 For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:43-47)

Verses 44 and 45 of Deuteronomy 32 tell us that Moses is speaking the words of a song to the nation of Israel, and yet, in the midst of it, he says “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people” (v.43). The word “Gentiles” here is ἔθνη, from the parent word ἔθνος, referring to heathen, unbelievers, those who are not Jews. In the middle of a song Moses is speaking to the nation of Israel, he says that the heathen, the remaining nations outside of Israel, should rejoice along with Israel. Why? Because, as the end of verse 43 says, “He will provide atonement for His land and His people.” In other words, the Lord will come and bring salvation to not only His people, Israel, but also the Gentiles; the Lord would redeem the Gentiles as well, would atone for the sins of Israel and the sins of the Gentile nations. Jesus says something along these lines in John’s gospel when He says,

30 Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. 32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” 33 This He said, signifying by what death He would die. (John 12:30-33)

In John 12:31, we read that “the judgment of this world” has come. Then, in verse 32, Jesus says that if He dies, He will “draw all peoples” to Himself. The drawing power would come through His death and resurrection. So, while there’s judgment and Satan, “the ruler of this world,” is cast out, there’s salvation for the world in Jesus (John 3:16). The Lord would draw “all peoples,” all nations, all Gentiles, to Himself. And yet, we know that the salvation is for every person because of the Lord’s words in the Great Commission to His disciples:

15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)

Mark 16:15 says to preach the gospel to “every creature,” the Greek phrase πάσῃ τῇ κτίσει referring to “all” (pase) creatures (ktisei). Why would the Lord want the gospel to be preached to every creature if He didn’t come to specifically save every single person? Calvinists say that we preach the gospel “because we don’t know who the elect are,” but Jesus would know; so, if He only has specific persons He wants to save while abandoning others, why would He, the omniscient Lord of the universe, want to preach to everyone (as if, in the Calvinists system, He wouldn’t know who “the elect” were)?

Table of Contents:
Propitiation for Sin: The Doctrine of Atonement
1. Atonement in the Book of Exodus
2. Atonement in the Book of Numbers
3. Atonement in the Book of Deuteronomy <-- You are here
4. Atonement in The Books of 2 Samuel and 2 Chronicles
5. Atonement in the Book of Ezekiel
6. Atonement in the Book of Leviticus and a Conclusion


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