As readers of this blog know, I love Dr. Michael Heiser’s work. His work on the Divine Council paradigm, culminating in his book The Unseen Realm, is first rate. I’ve been following his articles and blog posts on this subject for quite a few years and have developed quite a few thoughts on the role of Israel based on his thesis. On the whole, I find his thinking and writing to be wonderfully clear and logical.
When someone of such profound intellect and clarity attacks a position in a way that is completely illogical and self-contradictory, that’s telling.
In episode 85 of his Naked Bible Podcast, Dr. Heiser answers some of his audience questions. Among them is this question from Tom:
“In Hebrews 10, the author talks about how futile the sacrificial system is when it comes to accomplishing atonement. When bringing this up to a person who holds to the temple being rebuilt and the sacrifices starting again, they mentioned that even Paul made sacrifices to defend this position in Acts 21.”
Dr. Heiser’s response starts with a dismissive, “Yeah, that’s very poor logic on the part of those who would do that for a number of reasons.” Well since he says so, it’s fair game to give Dr. Heiser’s own logic a good, hard examination. And when we do so, we find that not only is his dismissal contrary to Scripture, but that he actually contradicts himself!
Chasing Rabbit Trails
Dr. Heiser’s answer takes up several minutes, and four pages of the transcript of the episode–yet never really gets to the core issue. That may be because he becomes lost on a side-issue: About half of his response is a meandering discussion on whether or not Paul’s sacrifice was part of a Nazrite vow. Now, I’ve argued before based on Luke’s careful foreshadowing in Acts 18:18 that the vow, the purification involved, and the shaving of the head all point to a Nazrite vow. After all, the whole point of the exercise was to demonstrate that Paul himself continued to “live in observance of the law” (Acts 21:24), so we should expect a vow taken directly from the Torah to be involved.
But here’s the thing: Insofar as Tom’s question is concerned, it is utterly irrelevant whether or not the vow in question is a Nazrite vow. Tom doesn’t even mention the word “Nazrite.” His question is how we should understand the undeniable fact that Paul had no problem sacrificing in the Temple some thirty years after the Cross! Even Dr. Heiser recognizes that the Nazrite issue is irrelevant: “[A]t the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Nazarite vow or some other vow that concerned ritual purity.”
So why did he go off on that tangent if it doesn’t matter and Tom didn’t ask? Obviously he’s thinking of someone else’s analysis of Paul’s actions. (I would be tickled and flattered if it turned out he was referring to mine.) But he admits that it doesn’t matter and that it very well could have been a Nazrite vow–which makes the whole preceding section nothing more or less than a muddying of the waters, a distraction from the core issue: Paul sacrificed, and even says that his whole purpose in returning to Judea was “to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings” (Acts 24:17), prosphoras, which is used throughout the LXX to refer to animal sacrifices.
His Real Pet Peeve: Return of the Sacrifices
Dr. Heiser never disputes that Paul, and the other Nazarines, offered sacrifices. Instead, he goes on another tangent about why he believes that building a third temple would be blasphemous:
Now let’s go from that to this larger question of bringing back the sacrifices. I’ll admit up front this is a bit of this is a theological pet peeve with me because this makes no sense at all. If the sacrifices are brought back then the writer of Hebrews was wrong. He made an error because the writer of Hebrews has the work on the cross covering past, present, and future people, sinners, all of us. There is absolutely no coherent rational for bringing back sacrifices post-Jesus. What would their purpose be? They can’t be to atone for moral forgiveness because that would be covered by the cross unless the writer of Hebrews made a boo-boo. I would suggest if that’s the case, then you, the person who’s saying the sacrifices are coming back, I don’t know what the basis of your salvation is then because if the writer of Hebrews is wrong, then maybe you aren’t covered. Maybe your sins haven’t been atoned for. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to live during the sacrificial era when it comes. These are absurdities.
Arguing With–and Answering–Himself
He dismisses the idea that sacrifices during the Millennium could be “memorial” sacrifices of Messiah’s own perfect Sacrifice. On the whole, I agree that that’s not a very satisfactory answer. But here’s the thing: Dr. Hesier himself answered his own “pet peave” just a few paragraphs earlier.
Both the Nazarite vow and those other vows were not about moral transgressions. They were about incurring impurity on your person. And if you go back to the Old Testament impurity laws, that’s why you got a purification offering. I’m sorry it’s translated sin offering. It makes it sound like a moral violation. . .
He continues in his concluding paragraph:
But using the sacrifices, using what Paul does as a wedge to argue this is really poor thinking because no matter what Paul did, whether it was Nazarite or something else, it had nothing to do with the kind of forgiveness, the kind of atonement that resulted from the work on the cross as opposed to what you read in the Old Testament sacrifices. Those are largely just about purifying sacred space making you fit that you didn’t pollute things that have been designated God’s domain and God’s turf.
So which is it? Are sacrifices something you did as “the basis of your salvation” (in which case, we’d have to question the salvation of both Paul AND Jacob/James), or are they “largely just about purifying sacred space”–in which case, they would have exactly the same purpose in the third temple as they had in the tabernacle, first temple, second temple, and the Apostles’ own worship lives without invalidating anything that the Cross is really about!
The Real Point of Leviticus–and Therefore, of Hebrews
Heiser’s own podcast on Leviticus demonstrates that the Levitical sacrificial system was not only insufficient to effect the forgiveness of human sins, but that it was never meant to. With the exception of the consecration of a priest, the cleansing of a leper and using the ashes of the red heifer to purify someone who had been in contact with death, the blood and ashes of the sacrifice were not applied to individual humans, but to the sanctuary. That is, they were not intended to cleanse an individual from sin, they were intended to cleanse real estate. “The blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify (present tense, post-Cross!) for the purification of the flesh” (Heb. 9:13), but “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4).
It’s not just that the blood of the Messiah is superior, it’s in a whole different category! It serves a wholly different purpose! Only the blood of the Messiah could cleanse a human being and make a person into a mobile, living temple (1Co. 3:16-17, 6:19). But even post-Cross, the blood of animal sacrifices still have a purification purpose, or so the author of Hebrews tells us–and so Dr. Heiser inadvertently explained during the more than two months that he taught the book of Leviticus!
Since the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the Messiah Yeshua and the Levitical system serve completely different and mostly non-overlapping purposes, and since they obviously existed side-by-side in the lives of Yeshua’s first generation of Jewish disciples (and Heiser was unable to debunk the fact that Paul went to the Temple to offer sacrifices, and that this was apparently perfectly normal among the Jerusalem brethren), then there is absolutely no reason why they could not exist side-by-side again after the Second Coming.
Picking and Choosing Scripture
Ultimately, Heiser’s position not only pits his own writings against his own writings, but pits the Bible against itself. In episode 70 (another Q&A), he states:
This is sort of a classic problem with the those who want to affirm a pre-millennial system of eschatology and they look back at Ezekiel 40 and 48 about a temple and that naturally begs the question of what about Ezekiel’s talk about sacrifices? How can we bring back sacrifices? That would be an abomination because the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus sacrifice was once for all. Yeah, he does.
I would agree with that. I don’t take the Ezekiel prophecy in chapters 40 and 48 as being a literal thing, that we should expect a temple to be rebuilt with sacrifices. And there are all sorts of the problems with it. The most obvious just as this one about having to offer sacrifice.
Basically, in order to support his view, he has to toss out the last nine chapters of Ezekiel. This is a common problem with the amillennial crowd–if a clear prophecy of Scripture contradicts their theology, they’ll just claim that the rest of us are taking it “too literally” rather than actually attempt to reconcile the apparently contradictory passages. Note that Dr. Heiser doesn’t lay out what he sees as the “all sorts of problems” with taking Ezekiel at his word–and the one issue that he does raise was actually answered in his own commentary!
God Does the Cleansing Either Way
Dr. Heiser believes that the sacrifices in the Levitical system had no inherent power or particular significance, but were essentially arbitrary. He notes in episode 66, commenting on Leviticus 4:
It is ensuring decontamination. It’s like creating a clean room for those of you in engineering or maybe that work in computers. That’s the idea, you just cleanse and decontaminate, you protect, you insulate the specific area, in this case, sacred space, from this person bringing the offering, this person who has inadvertently committed an offense. God accepts the offering because he’s the one who laid out the system. . .
So the purification comes from God. God says okay, you’ve taken care of my sanctuary and God looks at the person bringing the chattat, the purification offering, the decontamination offering and says you’re good. You’ve done what I asked you to do when you have this inadvertent problem and you did it in good faith. You obeyed; you did it with the right spirit. You did this in good faith so to speak. We’re okay now.
So even in the Levitical system–which again, is concerned with purifying holy real estate, not purifying individuals–“the purification comes from God,” and those performing the ritual recognized this. Obviously, in a third temple where the Messiah, the Word of God made flesh, were to reside, nobody would see these sacrifices as either having power in themselves nor as superseding the Messiah’s sacrifice. The purification, both of space and person, would still come from God.
It may sound like I’m picking on Dr. Heiser here. I’m really not. I’m picking on Christianity in general for coming to illogical conclusions in order to preserve traditions that developed in more anti-Semitic days. And to demonstrate that, I’ve not needed a single source outside of the Bible itself and Dr. Heiser’s own teachings on the subject.
So to sum up:
- Hebrews and Dr. Heiser both teach that the Levitical sacrifices weren’t just quantitatively inferior to the sacrifice of the Messiah–they were qualitatively in a whole different category!
- By using the present tense, Hebrews admits that the temple sacrifices still had a purpose in achieving an external “sanctification of the flesh” even post-Cross.
- Dr. Heiser actually concedes the point that Paul was fine with performing sacrifices thirty years after the Cross, though he tries to hide that concession behind the rabbit trail of whether Paul was under a Nazrite vow or not–a point that he admits doesn’t matter either way.
- If Hebrews is simply pointing out that reconciliation of the individual with God and Paul (the book’s authority, whether or not he actually penned it) had no problem with making sacrifices post-Cross, then any alleged conflict between Hebrews and Ezekiel’s vision of a third temple comes out of an assumption, not out of careful exegesis.
Hopefully, Dr. Heiser will take the time to apply his studies in Leviticus to his interpretation of Hebrews and Paul at some point. I for one would love to see what gems he mines from the Word should he do so.