Leviticus 16 Study Notes

16:1-34 In his mercy and grace, God provided the Day of Atonement as a sacred time in which the high priest cleansed the sanctuary and made atonement for the sins of the people.

16:1 The sanctuary was polluted because of the actions of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu (10:1-2). Chapter 16 is in part a response to their sinful actions.

16:2 The holy place refers to the holy of holies (vv. 16-17,20,23,27,33). The mercy seat was the place of atonement and was made of a solid gold slab that covered the ark of the covenant. The Septuagint (LXX) translates this word as “instrument of propitiation.” The cloud is not the cloud of smoke from the incense; it is the divine cloud representing God’s presence that descended on the tabernacle as a sign that Israel was to make camp (Ex 40:34-35) and that rested on the ark when God spoke to Moses (Ex 25:22; Nm 7:89).

16:3 The high priest had to bring an offering for himself first (cp. Heb 5:3).

16:4 The high priest wore the garments of an ordinary priest, indicating that he must be humble, free of all pretense. The garments were classified as holy, and thus set apart exclusively for the high priest. The high priest would bathe his body twice (vv. 4,26), and he would wash his hands and feet each time he entered the tabernacle or officiated at the altar (v. 24; Ex 30:19).

16:5 The congregation would have been represented by tribal leaders. The two male goats were counted as a sin offering even though only one was to be offered on the altar.

16:6 Atonement was made for the high priest and his household before he could bring the sacrifice for the nation. The word “household” refers to family and the line of subsequent high priests.

16:7-10 Three different interpretations have been proposed for the meaning of azazel (an uninhabitable place), a word that occurs only in chap. 16. The LXX translates it as “the one carrying away evil,” from which we got the term scapegoat. The second view was developed by later rabbis who suggested that azazel means “a rough and difficult place” and that it represented the goat’s destination. The third view suggests that the word is the name of a demon that inhabited the desert. Later Jewish interpreters identified azazel with Azael, whom legend identified as the leader of the fallen angels.

16:11 The first phase of purification took place through the blood-sprinkling rituals. The sin offering—for intentional or inadvertent sins—appears first in chap. 4.

16:12-14 The fragrant incense had a very practical purpose since the blood on the mercy seat would produce an unpleasant odor. The incense included spices such as stacte, onycha, and galbanum mixed with pure frankincense (Ex 30:34-35).

16:15 See vv. 11-14.

16:16 The atoning blood would purify the people of their sin and rebellion. This definitely points toward Christ, whose blood provides for the purification of all sin (Heb 9:24-28).

16:17-19 Only here and in 8:15 is the altar said to be set . . . apart or sanctified. Scholars differ on whether this is the incense altar or the main altar, but the latter is more likely. John Hartley says the sprinkling of the mercy seat cleanses all the furniture inside the tabernacle, and the sprinkling of the altar cleanses the outside furniture.

16:20-28 The second phase of purification occurred through the removal of the scapegoat. The author of Hebrews drew a parallel to this ritual when he affirmed that Christ offered himself as a sin offering once and for all (Heb 10:10). Jesus is also compared to the scapegoat because he also “suffered outside the gate, so that he might sanctify the people by his own blood” (Heb 13:12). The fact that Jesus took our sins upon himself is also affirmed in Is 53:5-6; 2Co 5:21; Gl 3:13; 1Pt 2:24. From a symbolic perspective, when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain that divided the holy of holies from the holy place was torn from top to bottom (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23:45), signaling access to God by all people through Christ’s atoning act on our behalf.


Hebrew pronunciation [kah FAR]
CSB translation cover, make atonement, purge
Uses in Leviticus 49
Uses in the OT 102
Focus passage Leviticus 16:29-34

Akkadian and Arabic cognates mean “wipe on,” “wipe away,” or “cover.” Kaphar as cover occurs with koper, asphalt, in Gn 6:14. Elsewhere kaphar uses other conjugations with different meanings. The intensive verb means make/provide atonement (Ex 29:36), atone for (Ps 65:3), wipe out (1Sm 3:14), or atone for (Dn 9:24). It suggests appease (Gn 32:20), ward off (Is 47:11), or wipe away the guilt of (Dt 21:8). It denotes make atonement or make atonement for (Lv 16:10,16). Passive forms also indicate be atoned for (Is 27:9), dissolved (Is 28:18), or absolved of responsibility (Dt 21:8). Some verbs connote “ransom” and could possibly derive from a homonym koper, “ransom.” But this connotation could have developed secondarily because cleansing so often came through substitutionary sacrifice. Capporet (27x) indicates mercy seat (Lv 16:13), the place of atonement. Kippuriym (8x) is atonement (Lv 25:9).

16:29 The Day of Atonement (Hb yom kippur) was an annual ceremony held on the tenth day of Tishri (September/October). Self-denial is usually associated with fasting and prayer (Is 58:3,5). The Targum adds that the people should abstain from “food and drink, from the enjoyment of the baths and anointing, from wearing shoes, and from marital intercourse.” Today, yom kippur is generally celebrated as a day of confession of sin and asking for forgiveness. Readings from Leviticus are included in this celebration, one of the most important holy days in Judaism.

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