Day of Atonement

To be honest, I’m a bit nervous at the prospect of writing about the Day of Atonement. It continues to be a major event on the Jewish calendar and I suspect you’d be much better off using Bing or Google to gain a better understanding of the feast than trying to follow my explanation. But here I go anyway… 🙂

The Day of Atonement represents the pinnacle of the sacrificial system given to Israel by God. Here’s a basic outline:

  • Exodus 35-40: Instructions for construction of the Tabernacle and its furniture.
  • Leviticus 1-7: Instructions for how different sacrifices are to be offered.
  • Leviticus 8-10: Dedication of the priests
  • Leviticus 11-15: Description of ceremonial clean & uncleanness.
  • Leviticus 16: Day of Atonement.
  • Leviticus 17-27: Laws for Godly living.

If I was to put these sections in my own words, they’d look like this:

  • God needs a holy place to live.
  • The way sacrifices are offered matters. They’re holy. We cannot approach God thoughtlessly.
  • The people offering the sacrifices are to be holy representatives of God.
  • Here’s a list of small ways to maintain personal holiness – free from sin and the baggage of sin.
  • On this day each year the nation will seek, receive, and celebrate the forgiveness of sins. They will receive at-one-ment with God.
  • If you’re God’s people you’ll express it in your lives… here’s how.

Rooker, in his Leviticus commentary (213), observes that Leviticus 16 “is the consummation of the previous fifteen chapters and provides the spiritual energy and motivation to carry out the imperatives of Leviticus 17-27.”  I think that’s a good summary of my outline.

In the original context of the Israelites in the wilderness and the tabernacle at the centre of their camp, the Day of Atonement rituals included:

  • 1 purification of the tabernacle (Lev 16:15-20);
  • 4 times atonement was made for the high priest (16:6, 11, 17, 24);
  • 3 times atonement was made for the nation (16:10, 17, 24).

The rituals include both sin offerings and burnt offerings. At the centre of the day is the fate of two goats. Two he-goats are brought before the high priest who casts lots to choose one to serve as a sin offering and the other to be that year’s scapegoat. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the scapegoat and “confessed over it all the wickedness, and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goats head.” (16:21) As the goat then left the camp, so did the sins of the nation.

This dramatic ritual must have made an impression on the people watching their sins depart. Verse 30 summarises the days events saying, “on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.” Isn’t that exciting?

Being clean from our sins is a thrill. It means harmony with God. It means removal of guilt. It means a clean slate and a new beginning.Christians experience a similar joy in the ritual of baptism. 1 Peter 3:21 describes baptism as “an appeal for a clean conscience“, while Paul in Acts 22:16 describes how he was told “Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.

Just as the goat didn’t magically remove sins (God did when these instructions were followed) so the baptismal water doesn’t remove sins by itself, and the sin doesn’t literally disappear into the sewer system. Atonement can only come from God. And just as there was one goat sacrificed and another banished, so baptism requires the sacrifice of Jesus. It is powerless by itself.

While I’m making comparisons, let me throw in Psalm 103:11-12.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

This passage demonstrates the confidence that the Israelites had in the promise of God to forgive them. In particular I hope you notice how God’s forgiveness is grounded in his love for his people. It’s almost an Old Testament version of John 3:16. God’s love for his creation prompts him to provide a path to forgiveness, to adoption, to holiness.

  • Since baptism is once while the scapegoat occurs annually, how do you remind yourself of your holiness before God?
  • Is the Israelite Day of Atonement a helpful lens to consider your forgiveness and relationship with God?
  • How prominent is the idea of holiness in thinking about your Christian walk, decisions you might make, or ways you worship God?
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