Saturday, October 20, 2007

Moses and the Atonement

When the Israelites had sinned by worshipping an idol, Moses sought to atone for their sins in Exodus 32:

30 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin.

31 And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold.

32 Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.

33 And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.

It's no wonder why this thought came to Moses. He was very familiar with the concept of transferring sin to an animal to be sacrificed. But the Lord's response teaches us about the true meaning of the sacrifices, as well as about the atonement.

The sacrificing of animals was not really what took away sin. The people were commanded to do it as a demonstration of their repentance, as well as a type of Jesus' sacrifice to come. If Moses could not take upon himself the sins of his people, surely neither can any animal, no matter how unspotted.

But there is even more to learn from this scripture, and that is something about the nature of the atonement. If Jesus' atonement was enough to take our sins upon him, why couldn't Moses make a similar proxy sacrifice? Wouldn't it have been just? If I have a debt and someone else volunteers to pay it, isn't justice served?

The problem, I believe, with Moses' sacrifice is that Moses couldn't have paid it, and he was wrong to assume he could. If there are two holes in the ground that are infinitely deep, could I take dirt out of one whole to fill the other? Of course not. Because we all fall short of perfection, and thus are cut off from God who requires perfection, we all have infinitely deep holes, even Moses.

Any punishment we endure is completely justified, but instead God extends mercy because of his Son. If Moses received any punishment, it would be wholly justified based on his own sins, and so it would not count at all for the sins of his people.

This tells us something about Christ--he was the only one without a hole, and the only one capable of filling ours. His sacrifice was acceptable because he was not deserving of any punishment, but yet he suffered greater punishment than us all.

I believe this is what Alma explained in Alma 34:

11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

12 But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

What does "infinite atonement" mean? I believe it means that it must be done by one who is perfect, so that the punishment cannot be applied to his own sins, but to all of ours.

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