The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Bible

Salvation: Atonement

“If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.”
—Numbers 35:30

In Numbers 35, the second generation of Israel, the children of those whom God delivered out of Egypt, is finally approaching the Promised Land. From chapter 27, God has given them specific directions about how they are to live in it: “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel” (35:34). The land is connected not only to the people and their commission to be holy (Lev. 11:44–45; 20:26), but also to their holy God. If the Holy One of Israel is to dwell among his people, they must not defile the land.

While much can cause defilement, to kill one of God’s image bearers especially tarnishes the land. The blood of a murdered man or woman stains the land until the guilty party atones for it
(Num. 35:33–34). In fact, because God highly values human life, the punishment for those who commit murder is death, in order to pay for the death they caused (Gen. 9:5–6; Num. 35:30–31).
Yet, potential for defilement still exists, since no one is found guilty except by the testimony of more than one witness (v. 30; Deut. 17:6), and thus some murderers will go unpunished. What is clear is that murder is a serious defilement of the land; if there is murder, only blood can pay for it.

While the murderer who intentionally kills must be put to death to make atonement (Num. 35:16), the one who unintentionally kills can flee to a city of refuge, where he is safe from the avenger (vv. 11–12, 32). Because atonement must still be made for the unintentional murder, the high priest’s eventual death will serve as that atonement as long as the one who unintentionally kills remains in a city of refuge (vv. 25, 28, 32).

ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible

This new study Bible was created by a team of 26 contributors to help readers see how Christian beliefs are rooted in God’s Word, featuring over 400 short in-text doctrinal summaries connecting Christian beliefs to specific Bible passages and 25 longer articles explaining important theological topics in greater depth.

Theology for Life

Blood and death must pay for all sin (Rom. 6:23). Christ, our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14), has paid the price of salvation in his blood to set the captives free.

For more on atonement see:

  • Isa. 53:1–12
  • Mark 10:45
  • Rom. 3:9–26
  • 2 Cor. 5:17–21
  • 1 Pet. 2:21–25

This article is adapted from the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible.


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