Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16:1-34

Perhaps the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar is the Day of Atonement. It falls on the tenth day of the seventh month (September/October) in the Jewish calendar. It is also call Yom Kippur which is Hebrew for “day of atonement”. It is the day God provided an annual solution for Israel’s sin. The Hebrew word translated “make atonement” comes from the word Kippur. Kippur, “atonement” meaning “to make atonement” or “to wipe clean.” The verb “atone” meaning “to remove by paying a price” occurs sixteen times in Leviticus 16. The word “blood” is found nine times. Blood is the means by which the price of atonement is paid for sin. Leviticus 16 functions like a bridge between the two main sections in this third book in the Law of Moses. Chapters 1-16 deal with the many sacrificial rituals and regulations concerning purity. While chapters 17-27 detail for Israel the traits involved in living a holy life.

The Role of The High Priest

 High Priest Did This Annually

The Day of Atonement was the only day of the year that the High Priest, could enter into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. He alone served as an intercessor to God for the sins of the people. He could not do this once and it would never have to be repeated. It had to be done every single year. Notice, to enter without God’s authority meant death. “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’” (16:2).

 High Priest Washed

Ritual washings were a common part of the temple service by all priests and Levites. However, it was especially important on this day. Before putting on his holy garments, the High Priest must wash (16:5).

 High Priest Changed Clothes

The High Priest did not wear just anything he wanted on this day. God had a dress code for him to adhere to. He was to put on a linen tunic, trousers, sash, and turban (16:4). He would not be dressed in his normal High Priest attire with his gold and jewelry. But he would appear more like a servant without the colorful clothing.

 High Priest Selects Sacrificial Animals

Aaron was to select two male goats. He cast lots to determine which goat was “for the Lord” and which was “for Azazel” or “scapegoat” (16:8). They would serve as sin-offerings for the people. The Lord’s goat would be sacrificed. The other would carry away the sins of the people into the wilderness.

 High Priest Sacrifices Bull and Goats

Next Aaron was to kill and sacrifice the bull as a sin-offering for himself and his household. Then he was to sacrifice the goat select by lots and chosen by the Lord to be a sin-offering for the people.

 High Priest Atones

The blood of the sacrificed were to be used to atone in four different ways. First, Aaron was to sprinkle the blood on the Mercy Seat. The Mercy Seat served as a lid for the ark of the covenant which was the sole piece of furniture in the Holy of Holies. The High Priest was to sprinkle the blood seven times with his finger in front of the mercy seat.

Three times the blood of the bull is called a sin-offering for the High Priest (16:6,11,17). He and those of his household were also sinners in need of atonement. A sin-bearing High Priest could hardly perform this ceremony for the people as long as he remained under the guilt of sin.

Having his sins atoned by the blood of the bull, Aaron could now take some of the blood of the goat of the Lord and enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle it for the people upon the Mercy Seat (16:7-10). The sins atoned for on this day were not individual offenses but sins of the nation as a whole for that year. Notice that in this chapter “uncleannesses” occur three times in the plural (16:16,19).

Finally, the Tabernacle was the subject of atonement via the blood of the sacrifices. Aaron put the blood upon the horns of the altar and sprinkled the blood seven times on the altar of incense. Notice the progress of atonement starts in the Holy of Holies and regresses out to the courtyard. Having completed the four steps of atonement the High Priest and his family, the people, the Mercy Seat, and the Tabernacle are all considered cleansed from all the uncleanness of the past year.

 High Priest and the Scapegoat

The goat of the people is called the “scapegoat” in verse 8-10. However some translations use “Azazel” which is not a translation but a transliteration. The High Priest would take the scapegoat and with both hands placed upon its head confess all the sins of the people (16:20-22). The scapegoat was led out of the camp by a man chosen to drive it into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people. The sins of the people were moved onto the goat “and shall make it sin” (16:9). That goat or sin was to be taken away never to appear before the Tabernacle or the people ever again.

 High Priest Washes and Redresses

The High Priest having served God and the people would re-enter the Holy Place remove the holy garments, wash, and redress in his high priestly garments.

 High Priest Sacrifices Two Rams

The High Priest’s final act on this day was to sacrifice two rams as burnt offerings, for the priest and the people (16:24).

The Role of the People

The role of the people on the Day of Atonement was one of passive onlookers. They stood outside and around the Tabernacle trusting the High Priests to perform this annual duty for all of them. However, there was some limited involvement by some of the people. They were to see to it that the remains of the sacrifices were removed from the camp and cremated. A man was selected from among the people to lead the scapegoat out into the wilderness. Upon his return he was to wash himself in a ritual cleansing.

For the people, this Day of Atonement was to be a time when the people “afflict[ed] yourselves” (16:29,21). Perhaps, this refers to fasting with use of sackcloth and ashes. A national day of mourning for past sins. In addition, it was to be a Sabbath, a day of rest from work (Lev. 23:26-32).

God created the Day of Atonement to continue year after year until a better High Priest, sin-offering, tabernacle, and covenant would come. This demonstrated to the people of Israel their perpetual need for atonement. They would start to sin on that very day and would be in need of another annual day of atonement when the tenth day of the seventh month rolled around again on their calendar.

During Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year, Jews greeted one another with the words, “may your name be inscribed in the book of life.” After Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the greeting changes to, “may you be ‘sealed’ in the book of life.” The hope could only be possible through atonement. However, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The true price of sin could only be paid by the blood of Christ. Only He is our atonement. This concept will be explored in next week’s article.

– Daniel R. Vess

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