Emil Heller Henning, author and principal investigator, professional architect and church elder

Dennis Prager on the Sacrificial System

Dennis Prager’s emerging Torah commentary, The Rational Bible, has created something of a stir in conservative circles. The first volume, Exodus, appeared in 2018; the second, Genesis, was just published in 2019. Prager says the “central message” of the Torah (the five books of Moses, Genesis to Deuteronomy) is that “God is good and demands we be good”—which, he says, “is the only belief that will enable us to build a good world” (Exodus, p.xvii). Evangelicals must applaud his courageous defense of “ethical monotheism” and its values in an increasingly anti-God culture. (Disclosure: Both The Rational Bible and my Ezekiel’s Temple book are published by separate divisions of Salem Media Group, which also syndicates his daily radio program.)

Both Prager volumes, though lacking the photos, maps, and charts typical of recent Bible commentaries, are beautifully bound and printed, and a joy to hold and leaf through—which is good, because his major insights are posed in numerous “essays” interjected all through the text, and are as delightful to read randomly as in order. His essay on the necessity of an afterlife (Genesis, pp.291-5) is just one that stood out for me. (I hope his next edition will include one explaining Joseph’s solution to the Egyptian food crisis.) Although Prager was raised modern Orthodox, his mature Judaism is both personal and eclectic, perhaps closest to the Conservative branch, though quoting authorities from all across the spectrum. His Torah text is that of the mainstream New Jewish Publication Society version (NJPS) used more by liberal Jews than Orthodox, though he sometimes changes or expresses disagreement with its translation.

No one familiar with his radio broadcasts will be surprised by Prager’s gracious tone—especially to Christians, whom he thanks for spreading Torah knowledge around the globe. He says it’s fine for us to understand “B.C.E.” as “Before the Christian Era,” since “that is, after all, what ‘Common Era’ denotes” (Exodus, p.xxvii). He even accepts (and occasionally even uses!) Jehovah as a plausible realization of the tetragammaton, which probably rankles Jewish readers, and confuses evangelicals who have largely jettisoned that in response to Jewish criticism. (The conservative ethical teachings he draws from the Torah may also challenge a sizeable segment of left-leaning Jewish America.)

Protestants will appreciate his remark (Exodus, p.237) that despite the antisemitism of the aging Martin Luther, his followers deserve credit for abolishing slavery and having “created” the U.S.A., and indeed “much of the modern world” (as I similarly concluded in my discussion of Luther in Part 4 of my “Christian midrash" on the Free Articles page.) Prager’s views on the historicity of the Genesis Creation and Flood accounts respect those he knows many in his radio audience to hold, while emphasizing the “moral lessons” in the “stories” as the critical element.

While I admire a great deal of what Prager stands for on the air and in print, we part ways when he calls the Torah (Exodus, p.xvii) the “greatest repository of goodness and wisdom” and “the most important book ever written.” (Did he mean to exclude the rest of the Tanakh—the psalms of David, Solomon’s proverbs, and the prophets?) Christians would extend those praises to our whole Bible, with what we see as the New Testament’s even higher goodness and wisdom flowing organically out of the Old.

I will comment on two of Prager’s big themes that quietly, yet insistently promote his view of the Torah over the New Testament—first (in this post) his positive portrayal of Judaism’s evolution away from blood sacrifices as atonement for sins, and second (in a following post) what he says about the incorporeality of God. I raise these two issues because they go head to head against things I have said on this site, though some Christian readers who haven’t yet bought his books may be interested in his positions generally. At least I would hope so, these being such key areas where Prager’s Judaism and Christian doctrine collide.

Parts 1 and 2 of my “Christian midrash” articles portray Christ’s once-for-all blood sacrifice as the complete and final fulfillment of the sacrificial system of the Tabernacle and Temples. Prager grants (Exodus, pp.374-5) that atonement is “fundamental” to the Torah, because “we are all guilty, to varying degrees” of offenses for which we “must atone.” However, he depreciates the atoning value of the animal sacrifices as coming from the shedding of blood. In Genesis chapter 3, he sees only God’s desire to clothe Adam and Eve with animal skins (to dignify them above the naked animals) but ignores the bloody deaths those garments entailed for their donors. Nor does blood figure in making Abel’s sacrifice more acceptable than Cain’s. In Noah’s sacrifice after the Flood, what God cared about was the smell of its smoke as being ethically superior to the meat’s taste (as in pagan god-feeding sacrifices) and what the act showed Him of Noah’s heart.

Prager’s downplaying of the blood really shows up in the “ultimate message” he sees in the Binding of Isaac (the Akedah) in Genesis 22 (see his Genesis volume, p.253)—the “message” being God’s repudiation of the human, and especially child sacrifices of the pagans. (When he adds to his statement (Genesis, p.257) that “God had no interest in the sacrifice of Isaac” that He “has no interest in the sacrifice of any other human being,” that strikes me as being as close to a shot aimed at Christianity as the irenic Prager gets.) Just as he passed over the killed animals in Genesis 3, Prager here makes (amazingly!) no mention of the ram caught in the thicket as a substitute for the offering of Isaac’s blood on the altar. That detail—which of course Christians take great notice of—somehow escapes his comment. .

Prager suggests (Exodus, p.374) that the Cover (or “Mercy Seat”) of the Tabernacle’s Ark perhaps indicated that “atonement is a way of covering our iniquities by burying them under the weight of good deeds.” The sacrificed animals were just temporary means for teaching our need to sacrifice to God what is valuable to us—then a valuable farm animal, today time spent in Bible study, “ritual observance,” and the giving of money.

Prager’s principal source for his bloodless sacrifice doctrine is the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (or “Rambam”) who lived from 1135 to 1204 “C.E.” He taught that the sacrificial system was a temporary “concession” to an ancient belief in animal sacrifice (Exodus, p.388), which God used to wean Israel from pagan human sacrifices. But Maimonides lived only one quarter of the way from today back to Sinai, making him an oddly “recent” voice in a religion that supposedly derives its doctrines from Moses at Mount Sinai. Moreover, Maimonides lived over a millennium into the “Christian Era,” and could hardly avoid reacting to its biblical argument that the animal sacrifices pointed forward to the all-sufficient sacrifice of the Messiah, realized in Jesus’ death on the cross.

After the destruction of the Temple in the first century, which physically stopped the sacrifices, the Talmudic rabbis continued nonetheless to regard them as God’s commandment, contemplating their eventual restoration—calling them “a pillar on which the earth’s existence depends” (BT Avot 1.2). Then came Maimonides, but even he included the laws of the sacrifices and prayers for their restoration in his law code. His near contemporary, Nachmanides (1194 - 1270) and Ibn Ezra stressed the substitutionary aspect of animal sacrifices—that their blood “should have been the fate of the sinner were it not for God’s mercy.” (See www.myjewishlearning.com/articles/sacrifice, and The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (2nd Ed.), pp.640-1.)

In regard to Isaac’s Binding, The Jewish Study Bible (p.46) definitely notices the ram, saying its substitution for Isaac “foreshadows the story of the paschal lamb” in Exodus. It quotes a prayer attributed to Abraham in the Genesis Rabbah midrash (56.9) for God to “see the blood of the ram as if it were the blood of my son, Isaac.” The Study Bible also says (contra Prager) this episode is “not about” the superiority of animal to human sacrifice, “nor is it a polemic against human sacrifice.” Moreover, animal sacrifice could hardly be a “concession” to ancient pagan practice, since all “ancient” human sacrificers died in the Flood prior to Noah’s sacrifice, and all later ones were apostates coming after Noah’s sacrifice (all of them having descended from Noah or his sons.) Thus animal sacrifice was not a “concession” to anything, but the approved form of worship all along!

The Jewish Study Bible mention of the ram foreshadowing “the paschal lamb” brings Pesach (Passover) to mind, where Prager has an explanation for the blood daubed on the doorposts and lintels that differs markedly from the Christian understanding. Christians see the blood of the paschal lamb as typifying Jesus the Lamb of God, whose blood was shed as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of believers, and seals them from the power of eternal death. Instead, Prager claims that the lamb’s blood was displayed by the Israelites at their doorways as an act of defiance against the sheep-gods of pagan Egypt—a theory he attributes again to Maimonides, plus an even later 18th century rabbi (Exodus, p.131). He attempts to link this to the references to the “abomination of the Egyptians” in Gen. 43 (see Exodus, p.101), which will not be discussed here.

While I see little unambiguous Scriptural support for that idea, I certainly can’t prove some Israelites didn’t have something like it in their minds that night. Knowing they did would not weaken my belief in the overarching Christian interpretation. I’d just point out that I was unable to find that sheep-god theory mentioned either in the Jewish Study Bible, the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, or the ArtScroll Tanach’s notes. Regarding Ex. 12.12—saying God would mete out vengeance that evening against the gods of Egypt—the Study Bible (p.126) says that “probably” meant their idols would be destroyed during the final plague, “just as” the Philistine idol Dagon was smashed in 1 Sam. 5. I don’t doubt some Jews hold Prager’s view, but it does not look like a major Jewish interpretation.

A key Torah verse that sums up the significance of the shed blood of a substitutionary animal sacrifice is Leviticus 17.11, which follows close upon chapter 16’s exposition of the annual service of Yom Kippur to atone for Israel’s unintentional and intentional sins. Lev. 17.11 says, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul” (Koren Tanakh, ArtScroll similar). In a footnote to that verse, the ArtScroll Stone Edition Tanach cites Rashi in reference to the sacrificed animal’s blood: “Let one life be offered to atone for another.”

In contrast, today’s more liberal Jewish Study Bible (pp.247-9) downplays Lev. 17.11 by ascribing it to the H (“Holiness”) documentary strand of the Bible, supposedly inserted by a later party with its own agenda; here (among other places) the Torah speaks—just as it does in the theology of liberal Christianity that I reject—with a divided voice. I applaud Prager for questioning such Source Critical arguments (Genesis p.564, Exodus p.202). It will be interesting to see what he writes about Lev. 17.11 in his Leviticus commentary when it comes out.

While dismissing the animal sacrifices as a thing of the past, Prager still believes very strongly that some (apparently sanitized) forms of ritual are necessary “to keep religion alive.” He asks us (Exodus, p.413) to “consider what would happen to the [American] holiday of Thanksgiving if there were no Thanksgiving dinner.” But if ritual is not only purged of its messy elements, but—perhaps more devastatingly—redefined to say that it never actually had the meaning one’s forebears thought it did, can that “keep religion alive”? To pursue his illustration, how long would Thanksgiving dinner remain an American custom without a slaughtered, blood-drained, fire-roasted turkey on the plate?

In closing I would like to return to the “central message” Prager sees in the Torah. Christians would agree that the Ten Commandments he sees as its ethical core are indeed an indispensable foundation for any society that aspires to be “good.” We would second what he so eloquently says about the Torah’s role in what is “good” about America and the West. In my Reformed wing of Protestantism, as reflected in the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith, all of the Ten Commandments are indeed held to be binding over all of humanity very much in the way Prager maintains, and we are likewise grieved at their increasing neglect today. A vital purpose of God’s holy law is to restrain evil, promote justice, and show mankind what He likes and dislikes. We heartily support Prager in his efforts to lift up that law before the American people!

At the same time, because we find man’s sin problem to run deeper in our fallen nature than Prager does, we cannot be as sanguine as he is about the chances for societal goodness being attained through our efforts, however noble. Indeed, we would humbly point to the biblical history of Israel itself, recorded so faithfully in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, as a case in point—nor has the civilization influenced by the “Christian Era” exactly made a heaven on earth. Instead, we hold that another critical purpose God has for His law in the Torah is to show man his sinfulness, judged by the righteous standard of a holy God, and drive him to the feet of the Messiah prophesied on the Bible’s every page.

Christianity says, Come by faith to Jesus, the promised Messiah, the sacrificial Lamb of God who paid for, atoned for, covered our sins—past, present, and future—with His shed blood on the cross. We would say, Come and trust in Him, because we agree with Prager’s distinction between mere “faith” and “trust.” Jesus has indeed changed us who know Him, though not yet quite made us entirely “good,” judged by the standard of His perfection. But He is good, and the Source of all goodness, and does produce much positive change where His Word is faithfully preached—and will make a fully “good” world in His time, when He returns. Till then, He grants us the “very good” quality of intimacy with Himself and His Father for which Adam was created, bringing us in His Spirit into the Most Holy Place through the veil—that is, through His flesh, given for the life of the world (John 6:51, Hebrews 10:20).

Jesus’ new living way to God is highlighted on this website from the book of Ezekiel in Parts 1 and 2 of my “Christian midrash” on the Free Articles page, which I invite you to read (along with my Dec. 24, 2018 post, “Hanukkah, Christmas, and Ezekiel.”) In his first chapter, God appeared to Ezekiel seated high up on a throne, on a square platform carried by four cherubim beneath its corners, each with their wings outstretched to touch those of their neighbors—an elaboration on the two gold cherubim on the Cover of the Ark, and the two larger ones poised above them (that is, in the First Temple), except that the cherubim Ezekiel saw were not inanimate objects molded by the hand of man, but living beings empowered by the Spirit of God.

At the end of his book, in his chapter 43, Ezekiel describes seeing this same manifestation of God approach with majestic lights and sounds to his visionary Temple—the same things Luke chapter 2 in the New Testament records about the first Christmas Eve. Then Ezekiel sees God’s glorious Presence enter the prophetic Temple (designed by God to reflect Jeremiah 31’s “new covenant” that would be “not like” the old Sinai covenant that Israel “broke”) and come to rest at the place of the sacrificial altar in its inner court, and fill the whole Temple with His glory, taking the honored place in it of the former Holy of Holies, with its Ark and golden but inanimate cherubim.

Don’t look for those things in Ezekiel. They are no more to be found (as Jer. 3.16 also prophesies.) Dear Jewish friend, don’t base your relationship with Almighty God upon Arks and molded Covers and mitzvot and “ritual observances” that can no longer—this side of the cross—please Him or satisfy the longings He has placed in our hearts. The New Covenant of which Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesied has arrived. Come to Jesus, the Living Temple, the Living Way to God.

Kudos to the Koren Tanakh's Temple Diagram

Does Ezekiel Anticipate a Sunday Sabbath?