IV. The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34)


IV. The Day of Atonement (16:1-34)

16:1-10 The Day of Atonement was the most solemn day on Israel’s calendar. The emphasis in this chapter is on the necessity of sin being atoned for so that God’s people may be forgiven and reconciled to him. The ministry of the high priest was crucial in facilitating this. God set the regulations for the Day of Atonement in the context of priestly disobedience and made it inextricably clear to Aaron that he must follow the Lord’s commands to the letter (16:1-2).

Aaron was the central figure in this drama of redemption. He could not enter whenever he wanted into the holy place behind the curtain where the ark of the covenant was. If he did, he would die. Why? Because, the Lord said, I appear there in the cloud above the mercy seat—the gold cover over the ark (16:2). In other words, this small cubicle in the tabernacle, and later the temple, literally housed the glorious, holy presence of God. Thus, God alone would decide who could enter his throne room and under what circumstances it could happen. In keeping with God’s demand for purity, Aaron had to first offer sacrifices for himself and his family (16:3-6). Verses 7-10 then give a general overview of the day’s rituals before the detailed instructions begin.

16:11-15 Aaron entered and left the most holy place three times during the day’s sacrifices and rituals (16:12-15). The first time was to burn fragrant incense before the Lord (16:12-13). The second time was to get some of the bull’s blood from his sin offering and sprinkle it against the east side of the mercy seat and before the mercy seat seven times (16:14). His third entrance into the most holy place was to bring the blood of the male goat for the people’s sin offering and sprinkle it on and in front of the mercy seat (16:15).

16:16-19 Once Aaron had purified the most holy place in this way for all the Israelites’ sins, he was to do the same for the tent of meeting itself (16:16). As this purification was taking place, nobody else was allowed into the tabernacle from the time Aaron entered until he had made atonement for himself, his household, and the whole assembly of Israel (16:17). The congregation of Israel—who also had to cleanse and prepare themselves for this solemn day (see 16:29, 31)—would know all was well when Aaron emerged to make atonement for the altar of burnt offering with the blood of the sacrifices (16:18-19).

16:20-22 The ritual involving the live male goat was another unique feature of the Day of Atonement. Aaron was to lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the sins of the people. In this way he ceremonially transferred the nation’s sins to the goat, which was sent into the wilderness—symbolizing the removal of their sins from the camp. The Hebrew word for this goat, azazel, has generated some speculation. The traditional interpretation of the term is “scapegoat,” which fits the context since the goat was to bear the nation’s sins. But the term could also refer to a rocky precipice—off of which the goat was pushed to its death. Regardless, redemption was illustrated by the transferring of sins to this live animal.

For believers in Jesus Christ, this offers strong encouragement. Since our sins too have been sent away, so to speak, we cannot lose our salvation. The scapegoat isn’t coming back tomorrow to return to us all the sins we thought were gone. If you have trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior, your sins have been removed “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12).

Watching the goat being led away served as a vivid illustration to the Israelites that their sins had been removed and fully atoned for. Yet, it’s important to remember that this ritual had to be repeated annually (see Lev 16:34). Only through Christ do sinful people have a sacrifice that was offered “once for all time” and lasts “forever” (Heb 10:10-14).

16:23-33 Following this ceremony, Aaron returned to the tent of meeting to change out of his special clothing and bathe again. He then offered the burnt offering that made atonement for his sins and those of the people (16:23-24). The unused parts of the offering were brought outside the camp and burned (16:27). The author of Hebrews alludes to the practice and says this was also true of Jesus Christ who “suffered outside the gate” of the city (Heb 13:11-12). Therefore, Christians should identify with their Lord and “go to him outside the camp.” In other words, we must be willing to bear “his disgrace” (Heb 13:13).

16:34 The Day of Atonement was to be established as an annual event. With it came a once-a-year sacrifice of atonement for Israel’s sins, officiated by the high priest alone. It was needed to make atonement for the Israelites . . . because of all their sins. When Jesus offered himself as our great high priest, he made atonement for our sins once and for all (see Heb 10:10). The Day of Atonement was fulfilled in him.