The Day of Atonement (16:1–34)
(Leviticus 23:26–32; Numbers 29:7–11)
1–2 After Aaron’s two sons died because they had disobeyed God’s commands regarding the tabernacle service (Leviticus 10:1–2), God reemphasized to Aaron that he must carry out his priestly duties exactly as instructed. This was particularly true when he entered the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark46(verse 2). Aaron (and each of his descendants who would succeed him as high priest) was not to come into the Most Holy Place whenever he chose but only once a year on the Day of Atonement47(Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 23:27). If he entered at any other time he would die, because that was where God Himself resided, and no man could come unbidden into the direct presence of God and survive.
The Day of Atonement was central to the entire system of offerings and worship in ancient Israel; indeed it was the most important day in Israel’s religious year, because on that day the sins of the entire nation were atoned for, cleansed and removed, so that God could continue to dwell among His people whom He had redeemed from bondage in Egypt.48
In the remainder of this chapter, detailed instructions are given to Aaron concerning what was to happen on the Day of Atonement. A few additional instructions are also given in Leviticus 23:26–32. For further discussion of the meaning and significance of “atonement,” see Exodus 25:17–22; 27:1–8 and comments.
3–5 These verses list the basic requirements for observing the Day of Atonement. When Aaron entered the sanctuary area49 he needed to bring with him five animals as offerings: one bull for his own sin offering, two rams for a burnt offering for himself and for the people, and two goats for a sin offering for the people.50 Also on this day he was required to wear special clothing, not the elaborate garments described in Exodus Chapter 28 but rather the humble garments of a servant—garments appropriate for a man entering into the very presence of God.
6–10 These verses provide a summary of the proceedings that were to take place on the Day of Atonement. The detailed instructions follow in verses 11–22.
First of all, before Aaron could offer a sacrifice for anyone else’s sins, he had to offer the bull as a sin offering for his own sins and those of his family (verse 6). No man—not even a high priest—could enter God’s presence without bringing a sacrifice to atone for his sin (Hebrews 5:1–3; 9:7). Later on, however, there would be a High Priest who, being sinless, did not need to offer a sacrifice for sin in order to enter the Most Holy Place; that Priest was Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 7:26–27; 9:11–14). Today it is only through Christ, our atoning sacrifice (1 John 2:1–2; 4:10), that men and women can approach God and be welcomed into His presence (John 14:6).
Then Aaron was to select by lot one of the two goats and sacrifice it as a sin offering for the people. The other goat, however, was not to be killed; Aaron was to symbolically transfer the sin of the Israelites onto this second goat, after which the goat would be led out into the wilderness and released. This living goat was called the scapegoat (verse 8), which means the “goat of removal,” or “escape goat.” This goat atoned for Israel’s sins by symbolically carrying them away into the desert (see verses 20–22 and comment).
11–14 After giving a summary of the proceedings in verses 6–10, God now repeats His instructions to Aaron in greater detail. First, after washing and dressing, Aaron was to sacrifice the bull, his sin offering, on the altar of burnt offering. Next, using a censer (small shovel), he was to take some coals from the altar and carry them behind the curtain (verse 12)—that is, inside the Most Holy Place. Then he was to put incense on the coals (Exodus 30:34–38) and let the fragrant smoke conceal the ark’s atonement cover above the Testimony51(verse 13); in this way Aaron would be protected from seeing God “face to face,” which would have resulted in his death.
Next Aaron was to sprinkle some of the bull’s blood on the atonement cover and before it (verse 14). It was the sprinkled blood (representing the bull’s life) that atoned for sin: a life (the bull’s) was offered so that the offerer’s life might be spared. Sin demanded the death penalty; the only way a person could escape that penalty was to substitute another life for his. . . . without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22).
15–19 Next, Aaron was to repeat the same ritual with the goat, the sin offering for the people. The sprinkled blood of the bull and the goat not only made atonement for Aaron and the people’s sins but it also “made atonement” for the Most Holy Place (verse 16)—that is, it sanctified and cleansed the Most Holy Place from the pollution, the uncleanness of sin. Only blood can “wash away” sin and the effects of sin (Hebrews 9:21–22).
Then Aaron was to sprinkle blood within the Tent of Meeting (the Holy Place) and thus make atonement for it as well (verse 16). After that, he was to put some blood on the horns of the altar of burnt offering (see Exodus 27:2) and thus make atonement for the altar too (verses 18–19).
20–22 The next part of the ritual was unique: Aaron was to place his hand on the head of the live goat, confess over it the sins of the people, and thus symbolically transfer those sins to the goat (verse 21). Then someone would lead the goat away and release it in a solitary place in the desert.
Why was this ritual with the live goat necessary? Hadn’t the sins of Aaron and the people already been atoned for?
Yes, they had. But atonement for sin has two aspects. The first aspect is the actual sacrifice, the substitution of life for life, whereby one’s sins are forgiven or “paid for.” At this point the person is cleansed and no longer held guilty by God.
But even after a person’s objective guilt has been removed, that person may still feel guilty; he or she may still feel unclean, and doubt whether they have truly been forgiven. For complete atonement to take place, one must have his sins and also the effects of sin removed—carried completely away. And it is this second aspect of atonement that the scapegoat fulfilled: The goat will carry on itself all their sins (verse 22). King DAVID later wrote: . . . as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). The ritual of the scapegoat was meant to give the Israelites the assurance that they had been forgiven.
Once we have confessed our sins and the atoning sacrifice has been made, then we can lay those sins—as well as the doubts, the guilty feelings, the sense of uncleanness—all on the head of the scapegoat and he will carry them far away. Jesus himself bore our sins in his body (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus has done everything for us; He not only died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins but He also carried those sins away and freed us totally from their effects—the pollution, uncleanness and guilt. Each Old Testament ritual, each sacrifice accomplished just one aspect of atonement, and it had to be repeated over and over; but by His death on the cross Jesus has once for all brought about the complete atonement of all those who have put their faith in Him (see Leviticus 7:37–38 and comment).
23–25 There remained one main task left to do: after changing back again into his regular garments, Aaron was to sacrifice the two burnt offerings, one for himself and one for the people. While burnt offerings were Israel’s ordinary means of atonement throughout the year, they also signified total dedication on the part of the offerer because the sacrificed animal was totally consumed on the altar (see Leviticus 1:3–4 and comment). It’s mainly this latter purpose that is in view here: after atonement for the entire nation had been made, the people could signify their gratitude and their renewed dedication to the Lord by the sacrifice of these burnt offerings.52
26–28 These verses deal with “cleaning up”after the rituals had been completed. The remains of the sin offering had to be burned up outside the camp (see Leviticus 4:12), just as Jesus, our sin offering, was taken “outside the camp”—outside Jerusalem—to be crucified (Hebrews 13:11–13).
29–34 God told the Israelites that the Day of Atonement must be observed as a special “sabbath” day—that is, a day of rest (verse 31); no work was to be done. It was a day of repentance, of mourning for sin, and of re-dedication to the Lord. The Israelites were to deny themselves (verse 29), which mainly meant that they were to fast on that day. This was the only fast day in Israel’s calendar year; this further indicated how important the Day of Atonement was in the religious life of Israel. Indeed, according to Leviticus 23:29–30, anyone who didn’t deny himself on that day would be cut off53 from his people, and anyone who worked on that day the Lord would destroy. Anyone who treated the Day of Atonement lightly was, in effect, despising God’s provision of atonement and thereby cutting himself off from God’s presence and from His covenant promises.
On this day, according to verse 34, atonement was made for all the sins of the Israelites. However, from other passages we can understand that this means “for all the unintentional sins” of the Israelites; there was no atonement possible for sins committed intentionally, that is, in hardened and unrepentant defiance of God’s law (see Leviticus 4:1–2 and comment).
Atonement is to be made once a year (verse 34). Jesus Christ put an end to the need for annual atonement, because by the one sacrifice of His own body He made final and permanent atonement for the sins of all those who believe in Him (Hebrews 9:2426; 10:12–14).