Wrath and Reconciliation: Propitiation According to the Old Testament Narratives

Academic Convocation presented by Dr. R. Gregg Watson
September 10, 2009

“The most unique and awe-inspiring distinction of Biblical faith is that its God desires to share a personal, relational existence with the created objects of His love: human beings,” said Dr. R. Gregg Watson, Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. 

Before joining Golden Gate’s faculty in 2002, Watson served as a translator for the Holman Christian Standard Bible project, working on one of the Old Testament translation committees. He also served as pastor of Brandon Baptist Church in Brandon, Texas for seven years. He received his Ph.D. and M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also taught as an adjunct professor. 

Speaking to faculty, students and staff at Golden Gate Seminary’s fall academic convocation, Watson stated the two aims of his presentation were answering the questions: “How does propitiation relate to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and what is propitiation as characterized in the Old Testament narratives?” 

Watson explained that God’s desire to love and have a relationship with humans is tied closely to the motives of His creative activity. “Theologically, this love and its moral underpinnings are the basis of God’s motives both when He punishes sin and when He forgives it.” 

Watson noted that “covenant” is the vehicle which gives the relationship its theological substance, “since it establishes a relationship between Israel and Yahweh in a manner that is unparalleled in the ancient world. The core aspect of covenant is the tripartite promise of God’s presence, the assertion that He will be their God, and that they will be His people.”
Referring to the regulations in Leviticus, which were concerned primarily with the worship of Yahweh through the giving of gifts and the bringing of sacrifices, Watson explained, “One did not enter the covenant through sacrifice. Rather, it was through the sacrifices that the covenant relationship was maintained.” 

“This personal, relational dynamic is essential to understanding the topic of this convocation address,” Watson emphasized, “because it is the context within which the idea of propitiation is conceived according to the narrative literature of the Old Testament.”
The word “propitiation” is a term that is most frequently applied in non-biblical contexts to any effort to seek the favorable response of deities through the giving of gifts, food or sacrifices, or to appease the wrath of a deity angered by some offense, Watson said. “Yet it has nothing to do with a personal dynamic between the god and the supplicant.” He noted that, “It is important to recognize that whatever else may be said about propitiation as conceived in the Old Testament, its function was to heal the breach which sin created between Yahweh and individuals or the nation of Israel.” 

Watson pointed out that “in none of the Old Testament narrative texts is a sacrifice made to remove the sin and to effect reconciliation with Yahweh. Instead, the two primary modes of reconciliation are either intercession by a prophetic figure or a national leader, or personal repentance.” 

Referencing Exodus 32.7-14, 30-35, Watson discussed the significance of Moses’ intercession on behalf of the Israelites, describing Moses’ pleas to convince Yahweh to change His mind concerning the destruction of the Israelites for their sin of worshipping the golden calf in the wilderness. 

Watson pointed out that the Exodus example demonstrates, “Prayer is the proper medium of approach, and a contrite heart the proper attitude, that makes propitiation work as a means of reconciliation.” Watson continued to explain that even in the Old Testament, relationship with God is built on the internal status of the heart, not on external acts (such as sacrifice) which one might presume to be in themselves acceptable to God. 

Watson began his conclusion by saying, “Expiation and propitiation are two sides of a single issue, yet they express means of reconciliation with Yahweh from two different trajectories.” He explained that expiation is an anthropocentric activity, provided by God’s grace and his desire to remove hindrances to the divine-human relationship. Propitiation is theocentric, directed toward God. The result is reconciliation, where the removal of sin and its effects bind man and God together, and reconciliation is the ultimate end of both propitiation and expiation in the Old Testament. 

“In every instance where God’s grace has benefit to the sinner,” said Watson, “It is the contrite, repentant and humble heart of the one who seeks His mercy that engages His grace.” 

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