Leviticus 16 – The Day of Atonement
A. Preparation for sacrifice on the Day of Atonement.
1. (1-2) How Aaron should not come into the Most Holy Place.
Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the LORD, and died; and the LORD said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.
a. The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron: Nadab and Abihu were struck down by the LORD because they came into the Holy Place and offered profane fire before the LORD (Leviticus 10). In chapter 16, God explained the proper way to come before Him.
b. Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil: Aaron (or any other high priest) could not come into the Holy Place any time he pleased, but only at God’s invitation and at the appointed time and place. This was so important that God added the warning, lest he die. Apparently, it was possible for the high priest to die in the Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat were.
i. The same is true today: We can only come into God’s Holy Place at His invitation. Blessedly, the access has been opened wide because of Jesus’ work on the cross for us. Romans 5:1-2 specifically says that because of Jesus’ work on our behalf, we have standing access to God.
2. (3-5) What Aaron needs to bring with him when he goes into the Holy Place.
“Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering. He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water, and put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering.
a. Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: After the warning in verses 1-2, God began instructions for the Day of Atonement. Though this chapter describes the ritual for the Day of Atonement, that phrase is not used in this chapter. The phrase comes from Leviticus 23:27-28.
i. “The day was the most solemn of all the Old Testament rituals. So significant was it that in later Jewish tradition it came to be called just that, ‘The Day’ (Yoma).” (Rooker)
ii. “Every arrangement was intended to impress the mind with the solemnity of approach to God and to emphasise the fact that man as a sinner has no right of access save as he approaches through sacrifice.” (Morgan)
b. With the blood of a young bull as a sin offering: On the Day of Atonement, Aaron started with the blood of a young bull to atone for his own sin and the sin of his house.
c. He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body: Aaron must come clothed with garments of humility. He did not wear his normal priestly garments for glory and for beauty (Exodus 28:2). Instead, the high priest wore a holy linen tunic and the linen trousers. He was clothed in simple, humble white.
i. “He was not to dress in his [priestly] garments, but in the simple sacerdotal vestments, or those of the Levites, because it was a day of humiliation; and as he was to offer sacrifices for his own sins, it was necessary that he should appear in habits suited to the occasion.” (Clarke)
d. He shall wash his body in water: Aaron must come washed. Traditionally, this washing was done by immersion.
e. He shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats: Aaron must come with two goats and one ram to complete the offering of atonement.
i. As a sin offering: “The two goats are regarded as one sacrifice. They are a ‘sin offering.’ Hence, to show how unimportant and non-essential is the distinction between them, the ‘lot’ is employed; also, while the one is being slain, the other stands before the ‘door of the Tabernacle.’ This shows that both are parts of one whole, and it is only from the impossibility of presenting both halves of the truth to be symbolised in one that two are taken.” (Maclaren)
B. What the high priest does on the Day of Atonement.
1. (6-10) Casting lots to choose between the two goats.
“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.”
a. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself: The sacrifice of this bull is described in verses 11-14.
i. The emphasis in this chapter is that Aaron(or every high priest after him) was to do this by himself. The phrase Aaron shall or he shall is repeated more than 20 times in this chapter. Not until the very end of the ritual was there any assistance to Aaron.
ii. Normally the tabernacle was a busy place, with many priests and Levites and those bringing their offerings, and many people about. But on this day the tabernacle was empty, except for one man doing his work.
iii. This was a preview of the perfect work of atonement to be made by Jesus the Messiah. “There was none with our Lord: he trod the winepress alone. He his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree. He alone went in where the thick darkness covered the throne of God, and none stood by to comfort him.” (Spurgeon)
b. He shall take two goats: There were two goats used in the sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement. Aaron presented them before the LORD. According to some, the two goats were to be as alike as possible – similar in size, color, and value.
c. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat: One goat was for the LORD and would be sacrificed as a sin offering. The other goat was the scapegoat and would be released to the wilderness. Each goat had an important role on the Day of Atonement.
i. There are many theories as to the nature of the lots that were cast to choose between the goats. Some believe that one lot had the name of the LORD, and the other the name Azazel – the literal Hebrew that is translated scapegoat. Rooker gives another theory: “According to Gerstenberger, a yes-stone and a no-stone were placed in a container. The one that fell out first would provide the answer to the posed question.”
ii. The scapegoat was literally the “escape goat.” It escaped death and went into the wilderness. Scapegoat translates the Hebrew word azazel. “The meaning of this word is far from certain…. The word may perhaps signify ‘removal’ or ‘dismissal’…. Probably the best explanation is that the word was a rare technical term describing ‘complete removal.’” (Harrison)
iii. “There are three possible interpretations for the meaning of this term: (1) It may mean ‘the goat that departs’ (that is, a scapegoat).… (2) It may refer to ‘the place where the animal is dispatched’ or ‘the Precipice,’.… (3) It may be considered the proper name of a demon inhabiting the desert (that is, Azazel).” (Peter-Contesse)
2. (11-14) The bull for the sin offering.
“And Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house, and shall kill the bull as the sin offering which is for himself. Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
a. The bull of the sin offering, which is for himself: The idea was that Aaron could only make atonement for the sins of the people of Israel after his own sins (and the sins of his house) were dealt with.
i. “According to tradition he prayed the following prayer: ‘O God, I have committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before thee, I and my house. O God, forgive the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house, as it is written in the Law of thy servant Moses, For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord’ (Leviticus 16:30) (Yoma 3:8).” (Rooker)
ii. The high priest in Leviticus 16 stands as a preview picture of the great work of Jesus the Messiah. Here is an important point of contrast: Aaron, and every high priest descended from him, was a sinner and must make atonement for his own sin first.
iii. For such a high priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. (Hebrews 7:26-27)
b. He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD: This created more than a pleasant smell. As the high priest entered the Most Holy Place, it created a cloud of smoke to cover the mercy seat. This shielded the high priest from full exposure to the glory of the LORD and was necessary lest he die.
i. “Would not his heart beat faster as he laid his hand on the heavy veil, and caught the first gleam of the calm light from the Shechinah?” (Maclaren)
c. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat: Once the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, he sprinkled some of the blood of the bull upon the mercy seat, even as it was hidden in the cloud of incense. This was the lid on top of the ark of the covenant.
i. The idea was that God was above the mercy seat(I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat, Leviticus 16:2), and as He looked down upon the ark of the covenant, He saw the sin of man. Man’s sin was represented by the items in the ark of the covenant: Manna Israel complained about, tablets of law Israel broke, and a budding almond rod given as a response to Israel’s rebellion. Then, the high priest sprinkled atoning blood seven times on the mercy seat – covering over the emblems of Israel’s sin. God saw the blood cover over the sin, and atonement was made.
ii. This captures the thought behind the Hebrew word for atonement: Kipper, which means, “to cover.” Sin was not removed but covered over by sacrificial blood. The New Testament idea of atonement is that our sin is not merely covered, but removed – taken away, so there is no barrier between God and man any longer.
d. Before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood: Because of this phrase, some believe that this blood was put on the mercy seat itself, and on the ground in front of the mercy seat and ark of the covenant.
3. (15-19) The goat selected for sacrifice is offered to make atonement for the tabernacle.
“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.
a. Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering: The bull provided atonement for the sin of the high priest and the goat of the sin offering was brought inside the veil and sprinkled seven times on and before the mercy seat. This made atonement for the Holy Place.
i. The goat that was sacrificed was also like Jesus, in that the goat was spotless, was from the people of Israel (Leviticus 16:5), was chosen by God (Leviticus 16:8), and the goat’s blood was taken to the Holy Place to provide atonement.
ii. “The two goats made only one sacrifice, yet only one of them was slain. One animal could not point out both the Divine and human nature of Christ, nor show both his death and resurrection, for the goat that was killed could not be made alive.” (Clarke)
iii. According to some Jewish traditions, it was on the Day of Atonement that the high priest – and only the high priest – could pronounce the name of God, the sacred Tetragrammaton, YHWH (Yahweh). When he entered the Holy Place with the blood of the goat set apart to the LORD, he uttered the name. He was the only one, and that was the only time, when the name could be spoken, and the high priest was to pass on the exact pronunciation of the name of God to his successor with his dying breath.
b. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel: This blood was applied to the mercy seat, but also the tabernacle and altar itself. This blood cleansed the house of God itself, which was made ceremonially unclean by man’s constant touch.
i. Atonement for the Holy Place: Both the priest of God and the house of God needed to be cleansed by atoning blood before atonement for Israel as a nation could be made. “The priest who cleanses others is himself unclean, and he and his fellows have tainted the sanctuary by the very services which were meant to atone and to purify.” (Maclaren)
ii. The use of the three terms their transgressions, their sins, their uncleanness give extreme emphasis to the idea of Israel’s sinfulness. This was atonement for the depths of sin.
iii. The first used term may be the most important. “The word pesa, translated [transgressions], is the most grievous word for sin in the Old Testament. The term refers to sin in its grossest manifestation. It indicates a breach of relationship between two parties and was probably borrowed from the diplomatic realm, where it indicated a covenant-treaty violation.” (Rooker)
4. (20-22) The release of the scapegoat.
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
a. He shall bring the live goat: After the high priest’s sin was dealt with and after the tabernacle itself was cleansed, Aaron then dealt with the sin of the people through the transference of sin and release of the scapegoat.
b. Aaron shall lay both his hands: As the high priest did this, he confessed all the iniquities of the children of Israel. This confession of sins was an important part of the Day of Atonement ritual, linking the concept of the confession of sin and atonement.
i. The confession of sin was to be complete. The triple use of all the iniquities…all their transgressions…all their sins gives a strong emphasis.
ii. “According to the Mishnah, the high priest said the following prayer as he placed his hands upon the scapegoat: ‘O God, thy people, the House of Israel, have committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before thee. O God, forgive, I pray, the iniquities and transgressions and sins which thy people, the House of Israel, have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee; as it is written in the law of thy servant Moses, For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you: from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord’ (Leviticus 16:30; Yoma 6:2).” (Rooker)
c. He shall release the goat in the wilderness: This was a perfect demonstration of atonement under the Old Covenant, before the completed work of Jesus on the cross. Sin could be put away, but never really eliminated. The sin-bearing goat, bearing the sin of Israel, was alive somewhere but put away.
i. Charles Spurgeon explained that Rabbi Jarchi said the goat was taken ten miles out of Jerusalem, and there were refreshment stations each mile along the way for the man who escorted the goat out of the city. He finally went the ten miles and then watched the goat wander off until he could see the goat no more. Then the sin was gone, and the Day of Atonement was considered complete.
ii. “The picture of the goat going away, and away, and away, a lessening speck on the horizon, and never heard of more is the divine symbol of the great fact that there is full, free, everlasting forgiveness, and on God’s part, utter forgetfulness. ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’ ‘I will remember them no more at all for ever.’” (Maclaren)
iii. The first goat was a picture of how atonement is granted: sins are forgiven because punishment has been put on an innocent party. The second goat, the scapegoat, was a picture of the effect of atonement: the penalty of our sins is cast far away, never to return.
iv. Sin was put away – but not completely. How could one know for certain that God had accepted the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement? What if someone accidentally encountered the scapegoat in the wilderness? What if the scapegoat wandered back among the people of Israel? Through their traditions, the Jews began to deal with these concerns. “On the head of the scape-goat a piece of scarlet cloth was tied, and the tradition of the Jews states that if God accepted the sacrifice the scarlet cloth turned white while the goat was led to the desert; but if God had not accepted this expiation, the redness continued, and the rest of the year was spent in mourning.” (Clarke) Through this, they thought to have a certainty about the work of atonement.
v. It seems that later the ceremony was altered, so the goat would be killed and have no chance of contacting Israel again. “The Jews write, that this goat was carried to the mountain called Azazel, whence the goat is so called; and that there he was cast headlong; and that the red string by which he was led turned white when God was pleased with the Israelites, otherwise it remained red; and they mourned all that year.” (Poole)
vi. When Jesus’ rose from the dead, clothed with white garments, it was proof forever that the red had changed to white – and atonement Jesus made at the cross was perfect and complete.
vii. “And the ancient Hebrews write, that forty years before the destruction of the temple, which was about the time of Christ’s death, this red string turned no more white” (Poole).
5. (23-28) Completion of the sacrifices.
“Then Aaron shall come into the tabernacle of meeting, shall take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the Holy Place, and shall leave them there. And he shall wash his body with water in a holy place, put on his garments, come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. The fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. And he who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. The bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. And they shall burn in the fire their skins, their flesh, and their offal. Then he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.
a. He shall wash his body with water in a holy place: After releasing the scapegoat, the high priest and the one who released the scapegoat washed, and the sin offering and burnt offering would be completed.
b. Take off the linen garments…. put on his garments: When atonement was finished, the high priest emerged from the tabernacle in glory – with the humble garments taken off and in his normal clothes for glory and beauty.
i. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was humble (Leviticus 16:4), he was spotless (Leviticus 16:11), and he was alone (Leviticus 16:11-14), and he emerged victorious. Each of these aspects was perfectly fulfilled by Jesus Messiah in accomplishing the ultimate work of atonement.
6. (29-31) What the people did on the Day of Atonement.
“This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever.
a. You shall afflict your souls: In contrast to other national days of gathering, the Day of Atonement was a day to afflict your souls. That is, it was a day of fasting and rest – a sabbath of solemn rest.
i. God wanted them to afflict themselves, to show the humility and repentance appropriate for those who need forgiveness. It was also an identification with the sacrifice for sin. Afflicting the soul brought the Israelite into sympathy with the afflicted sacrificial victim, even as the believer identifies with Jesus Christ on the cross.
ii. Afflict your souls: “The admonition…has been traditionally understood to refer to fasting. This is thus the only fast day in the Mosaic Law.” (Rooker)
iii. Modern Jews who do observe the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) typically fast for that day. The Mishna gives four more things to abstain from: bathing, the use of oil on the body, wearing shoes, and sexual intercourse (cited in Rooker). Even if a Jewish person today were to observe all those things on Yom Kippur, they still have no sacrifice for sins.
· Some Jewish people consider their own sacrifice to be a suitable substitute; today some sacrifice a rooster for every male in the family, and a hen for every female, on the Day of Atonement – a vague shadow of obedience to Leviticus 16.
· Some Jewish people consider charity a suitable substitute for sacrifice; the word “charity” in modern Hebrew is the same as the word for “righteousness.”
· Some Jewish people consider sufferings a suitable substitute for sacrifice; among the Jews of Eastern Europe there used to be a custom to inflict 39 lashes upon themselves on the Day of Atonement.
· Some Jewish people consider good works or the study of the law as suitable substitutes for sacrifice.
b. That you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD: The afflicting of one’s soul, the taking of rest, and the observance of a sabbath of solemn rest were important aspects of the Day of Atonement. Yet, fundamentally, the basis of atonement was sacrifice; the atonement made by the priest.
i. “The shallow dream that God’s forgiveness can be extended without a sacrifice having been offered does not exalt but detracts from the divine character. It invariably leads to an emasculated abhorrence of evil, and detracts from the holiness of God, as well as introduces low thoughts of the greatness of forgiveness and of the infinite love of God.” (Maclaren)
c. It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you: This sabbath of solemn rest demanded a cessation of works, even as the believer is justified and finds atonement apart from his own works, being justified by the work of another. This means that all the charity, all the sufferings, all the study of the law in the world cannot atone for sin – we must rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
i. Yom Kippur ends with the blowing of the Shofar, the trumpet that heralds the coming of the Messiah. The following prayer for a Jewish Day of Atonement liturgy is attributed to Rabbi Eleazer Kalir in the 9th Century, and is often repeated today in some form:
Our righteous Messiah has departed from us,
We are horror-stricken, and have none to justify us.
Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions
He carries who is wounded because of our transgressions
He bears on His shoulder the burden of our sins.
To find pardon for all our iniquities.
By His stripes we shall be healed –
O Eternal One, it is time that thou should create Him anew!
ii. Charles Spurgeon suggested three things that Christian believers should do as we appreciate the perfect atonement that Jesus the Messiah made for His people:
· Afflict our souls in humility and repentance.
· Rest from our works of self-justification and self-righteousness.
· Behold our High Priest in His glorious garments.
7. (32-34) What the high priest does on the Day of Atonement.
“And the priest, who is anointed and consecrated to minister as priest in his father’s place, shall make atonement, and put on the linen clothes, the holy garments; then he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tabernacle of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year.” And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.
a. He shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary: This meant the priest and only the priest. Only once a year could any man – and then, only one man – enter into the Holy Place and come near the presence of God.
b. For all their sins, once a year: To this summary of what was previously described in the chapter is the reminder that this is to be done once a year.
i. Every year, year after year, this atonement had to be made, showing it was never completed. In contrast, Jesus provided a finished work: For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another; He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (Hebrews 9:24-28)
ii. “For us there is no waiting for an annual day of atonement. We need not wait, with sin undealt with for an hour. Our Priest abides in the holiest, and we have access there through Him at all times.” (Morgan)
(c) 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org