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 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).
b. Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil: Therefore, Aaron could not come into the Holy Place any time he pleased, but only at God’s invitation and at the appointed time and place.
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. With the blood of a young bull as a sin offering: Aaron must come with sacrificial blood to cleanse his own sin and the sin of the nation.
b. He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body: Aaron must come clothed with garments of humility. Over his ornate garments for glory and for beauty (Exodus 28:2), he wore a holy linen tunic and the linen trousers. He was clothed in simple, humble white.
c. He shall wash his body in water: Aaron must come washed. Traditionally, this washing was done by immersion.
d. 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. This was extensive preparation for an important day. To the ancient Jews the Day of Atonement was called “the great day” or sometimes even just “the day.” It was and remains the only day of commanded fasting on the Jewish calendar. Modern Jews still regard Yom Kippur an important day of fasting, soul searching, and righting wrongs – yet they offer no sacrifice for sin.
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 Lordat 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: After the sacrificing the bull as a sin offering for himself (detailed in Leviticus 16:11-14), the high priest cast lots to choose between the two goats.
i. The Talmud stipulated that the two goats be as alike as possible – in size, color, and value.
b. 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 and one goat would be the scapegoat and would be released to the wilderness. Each goat had an important role on the Day of Atonement.
i. 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)
ii. There were elaborate Jewish traditions about Azazel, saying he was a demonic being that the Messiah would defeat. More likely, azazel simply refered to this goat’s function of symbolically removing sin from Israel.
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: This sin offering was for himself and for his house. Before the high priest could make atonement for the nation, he had to make atonement for himself.
i. When Jesus offered a perfect atonement for sin, He did not need to make a sin offering for Himself: 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. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever. (Hebrews 7:26-28)
b. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat: The blood of this sin offering had to be sprinkled on the mercy seat, which was the lid to the ark of the covenant, which sat in the Holy Place. When he came into the Holy Place, he had to come with a smoking censer that gave off a cloud of incense.
i. According to Jewish tradition, 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. When he entered the Holy Place with the blood of the goat set apart to the Lord, he would utter the name. He was the only one, and that was the only time, when the name could be uttered, and the high priest was to pass on the exact pronunciation of the name of God to his successor with his dying breath.
c. Before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood: 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.
i. 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.
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 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.
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.
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. When he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place: 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. 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. One ancient Rabbi says 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. 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.
iii. It seems that later the Jewish people altered the ceremony 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)
iv. “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) When Jesus’ blood red body rose from the dead, clothed with white garments, it was proof forever that the red had changed to white – and atonement at the cross was perfect and complete.
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 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 – just like Jesus was in accomplishing our 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. Modern Jews who do observe the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) typically fast for that day. Yet they have no sacrifice for sins.
· Some Jews 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 Jews consider charity a suitable substitute for sacrifice; the word “charity” in modern Hebrew is the same as the word for “righteousness.”
· Some Jews consider sufferings a suitable substitute for sacrifice; among the Jews of Eastern Europe there used to be custom to inflict 39 lashes upon themselves on the Day of Atonement.
· Some Jews 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: God wanted them to afflict themselves so they could identify 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.
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. An ancient prayer in a Jewish Day of Atonement liturgy reads:
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!
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)
© 2004 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission