The Day of Atonement Leviticus 16:1-34


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Leviticus 16:1-34

Let me remind you of where we are in this important book of the Bible. We have completed a section of the book of Leviticus that deals with the causes and remedies of ritual defilement. We have made the point repeatedly that this system of ceremonial purity had as its object the cultivation and enforcement of a deeper, more important holiness: that of believing thought and life, of moral purity or godliness in life. Sacrifices that removed ritual defilement also removed the guilt of sin, a much more significant thing. Ritual defilement is never said to be sin and it bears no guilt unless it is unremoved in disobedience to the will of God. When Israel was told to be holy because Yahweh is holy, she was being told to live in a manner consistent with Yahweh’s character, the very character that was represented in the commandments of the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments and the many lesser commandments that worked out their implications for daily life. The ritual system was a way of bringing that obligation of moral obedience home in every dimension of life. It made the holiness of Yahweh a fact of daily life.

But that same ritual system also provided a way forward in the face of the inescapable reality of moral failure. We’ve already noticed that the sacrifices were appointed not only for the removal of ritual impurity, but moral defect as well. The people of Israel were sinners, as have been all the people who have lived in the world or ever shall live in this world. They broke God’s law as much as they kept it. How then could their place before a holy God be maintained when they so often disobeyed his law; when they failed to live up to the stipulated requirements of his holiness?

We’ve already spoken of the sacrifices as instruments of forgiveness, but not yet has the theory of the sacrifices been explained. The importance of shed blood has been often noted, but nowhere has it yet been explained why the shedding of blood is so necessary, and so on. But now, in the middle of the book, we finally get an explanation as to how sacrifices work and, in chapter 17, precisely what blood signifies in all of these rituals. It is, to be sure, an explanation appropriate for that time, but no careful reader of the Bible can fail to see or ever has failed to see that the ritual of the Day of Atonement provides the template for the entire Bible’s doctrine of atonement, of the taking away of sin by means of a sacrificial substitute.

This chapter is read still today in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, though, of course, none of this ritual is any longer observed or can be any longer observed, there being no priesthood, temple or altar in Israel. [cf. Levine, 99]

Text Comment

v.1       The chapter begins with a reference to the offense that had been committed by Nabab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, who had been executed by the Lord when they approached the Lord without regard to the demands of his holiness (10:1-2). Aaron and Israel must not be like them! They must take this whole matter seriously. No one had the right to barge into the Lord’s presence and the Most Holy Place was where his presence was concentrated, in and above the ark. The cloud, which we will read about in a moment, seems to have been a permanent phenomenon, though how long it remained in the Most Holy Place we have no way of knowing. [Levine, 100-101]

v.2       Near the end of the previous chapter another warning had been given not to defile the sanctuary of the Lord (15:31). Now Aaron was to be told how to enter the Most Holy Place without defiling it. One thing is clear throughout all this legislation: Yahweh’s holiness is not only a fact; it is a threat to sinful mankind. Care must be taken and serious attention devoted to managing our relationship with the holy God. Actions that amounted to contempt for God’s holiness were threatened with the most severe punishment. Modern man has largely lost this consciousness, including we modern PCA ministers and men and women, but that hardly means that the threat doesn’t exist! The New Testament, in fact, often reminds us that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”

On the other hand, the Lord wanted Israel to remain in fellowship with him so he carefully explained not only how Israel was to live, but what she was to do when she failed to live that way in this particular or that.

v.5       Aaron was not to wear his high priestly robes but simpler linen garments and was to bathe not just his hands and feet but his entire body. And he was to approach the Lord with the proper sacrifices having been made.

v.10     The meaning of this Hebrew word Azazel, here transliterated not translated, that is to say you are given here the English sound of the Hebrew word, has been the subject of longstanding debate. The word is found here and only here in the Bible. Some have suggested that it was the name of some demon, a view I think unlikely for several reasons; others that it means “wasteland” or “desert,” into which kind of area, as we will see, this second goat is set loose; others that it is a compound word consisting of the noun “goat” and the verb “go away” or “disappear.” It is the third explanation that was followed by the translators of the LXX two hundred years before Christ and underlies the famous term “scapegoat,” used by William Tyndale in his English translation, then in the KJV and, later, more modern translations of the Bible.

What is clear is that this goat too, not only the goat that is killed for the sin offering, made atonement for Israel.

v.11     “Aaron’s house” means “the priests.” The priests had to officiate at the ritual that atoned for the people and so they had first to be clean themselves.

v.13     Incense represented the prayers of the people and the cloud that the burning incense created was apparently to mix with the cloud already there and cover the lid of the ark under which the tablets of the law were resting inside the chest itself. Either the incense cloud hid the Lord’s glory from Aaron to protect him — as the cleft of the rock had hid Moses from the sight of God’s glory, a sight that would have consumed him (Ex. 33:12-34:7) — or the incense cloud indicated that Aaron was approaching the Lord in a spirit of prayer.

“Mercy seat” is the translation of a Hebrew word, kapporet, built on the verb meaning “to atone.” It is often rendered as “atonement cover,” that is, the lid of the ark where atonement was made. The LXX rendered the word with a word that meant “instrument of propitiation.” That is, that which turned away of God’s wrath. The ark and especially the lid with the facing cherubim attached, was considered God’s throne. It was, therefore, the great embodiment of God’s presence among his people. The entire sanctuary served to embody God’s presence, and, in the wilderness, so did the pillar of fire and the glory cloud, but chief among these signs of Yahweh’s presence was the Ark of the Covenant.

v.14     The blood of the bull of the sin offering was to be sprinkled on the lid of the ark, cleansing it from the sins of the priests that had defiled it, the ark resting in the midst of the priests as it did. The sanctuary faced east; that is, its door was on the east side of the building proper, the door into the courtyard was likewise on the east side. It was facing the east and so that would be the front side of the Ark of the Covenant.

v.16     The blood of the goat killed for the sin offering is used in the same way to cleanse the Most Holy Place from the sins of the people that had defiled the emblem of God’s presence. In other words, Aaron repeated the ritual he had already performed with the bull’s blood now with the blood of the goat. Note carefully that we are talking about sins here, not about ritual or ceremonial forms of defilement which were not considered sins. This is the Day of Atonement and when the great atonement is made it is only sin that is in view. The words translated “transgressions” and “sins” in v. 16 cover all acts of disobedience to the commandments of God.

v.19     Having made atonement for the sanctuary proper, the actual two room sanctuary, Aaron then cleansed the rest of the Tent of Meeting, that is the courtyard, by sprinkling blood on the extremities of the altar that stood in the middle of the courtyard.

v.22     This part of the ritual everyone could witness. No one could see what Aaron was doing inside the structure itself, but everyone could see him put his hands on the head of this goat and could hear him confessing Israel’s sins. And then they could see the goat being led away into the wilderness.

The phrase the ESV uses, “remote area,” translates words that literally mean “a land cut off.” More on that later.

v.24     In other words, Aaron reversed the process he followed in vv. 4-5. He was to take off his linen garments, bathe his entire body, and put on his normal high-priestly uniform. The great atonement had been made and now the regular sacrifices of atonement were to be offered.

v.25     Remember, the fat of the sin offering was always entirely the Lord’s and so consumed on the altar.

v.26     The man who took the goat into the wilderness had to be purified from the contamination he would have contracted by contact with the animal that was bearing Israel’s sins.

v.28     As was ordinarily the case, the rest of the animal whose blood had been used for the sin or purification offerings had to be destroyed outside the camp.

v.29     The pronoun “you” is plural here. So the people of Israel are being addressed and told how they are to observe the Day of Atonement. “Afflict yourselves” or “humble yourselves” refers at least to fasting; it may have referred to more than that but almost certainly to fasting. [Levine, 109] The point is that they were to be spiritually engaged in all of this, expressing their sorrow for the sins they had committed that made the ritual necessary and practicing the repentance that was appropriate for sinners. [Sklar, 214] It was also to be a Sabbath day, a day of rest from work. The alien may not have fasted, but he was to do no work. [Levine, 109]

v.30     The result was that Israel would be clean before the Lord, cleansed from her sins.

v.34     In other words, when Aaron was gone, the next high priest to follow him was likewise to follow these rituals on the Day of Atonement.

In teaching our Christian faith and explaining it to others at certain points we rely on words that are nowhere found in the Bible. The term “Trinity,” for example, is not a biblical word, but we would be hard-pressed to discuss the triple personality of the one living God without the use of that word, coined very early on in Christian reflection on the nature of God. In a similar way we would be hard pressed to discuss God the Son’s taking to himself a human nature without the use of the term “incarnation,” likewise not a term that appears anywhere in the Bible. Nor does “monotheism” or any number of other terms that have become extraordinarily helpful if not essential to summarize biblical teaching.

Well, another such word is “atonement.” Now, you may object that “atonement,” unlike those other examples, does occur in the Bible. After all, we have encountered it numerous times in Leviticus so far and find it a number of times in this chapter 16. Well, yes and no. The English word “atonement” is said to have been coined by Thomas More in the 16th century. It is made up, obviously, of “at”-“one”-“ment.” Atonement is that which brings peace with God. Fair enough. But the problem is the word is a cipher. It is used to translate a variety of biblical terms — propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption chief among them — terms that explain in different ways how peace with God comes to pass. The meaning of the word “atonement” is sufficiently vague that it means very different things to different people. Unlike the biblical terms it translates, it does not tell us how men are reconciled to God? That is, “atonement” is not really a biblical word; it is an English word of uncertain meaning, a kind of substitute for rather than a translation of the biblical terms. The biblical terms used in both Hebrew and Greek are more precise. There is a debate about their meaning as well, to be sure, but in the view of many scholars, those we are most likely to trust, that debate has more to do with what people are willing to believe than any ambiguity about the meaning of the words themselves. I won’t bore you with the details, but the conclusion is this: what reconciles God to man in the Bible, what redeems him from his bondage to guilt, is propitiation, that is, what turns away God’s wrath.

God’s wrath in the Bible, of course, is not a temper tantrum. It is the expression of his holy justice — we read that God is angry with the wicked every day — and for that wrath to be appeased, for that justice to be satisfied, for God’s holy anger to be turned away from us a sacrifice must be made. Everywhere in the Bible God’s wrath is provoked by human sin, that and nothing else. God’s wrath is his moral response to our immorality. Remember that when you come across the term in Holy Scripture. And everywhere and always in the Bible God’s wrath is turned away by the taking of a life. Here in Leviticus 16 the entire ritual presupposes the danger that Israel must avert, a danger that is due to her sin and God’s holiness. It begins with a reminder of the divine execution of Nadab and Abihu and closes with the promise of the forgiveness of Israel’s sins.

And that leads us to still another one of those important words that are not found in the Bible but is tremendously important in expressing the teaching of the Bible. And that word is substitution. The fact is that the life that is taken to propitiate God for the sins of his people, the ransom that is paid to redeem God’s people from their bondage to guilt, is the life of another. A substitute dies in the place of the sinner. The death of the substitute — represented by its shed blood — is what accomplishes atonement. That is, of course, the reason why the sins are confessed by the sinner with his hands on the head of the sacrificial animal while it is still alive. That was the ritual that effected the substitution: the worshipper’s sins were being, as it were, transferred to the animal, who was then executed in place of the worshipper himself.

All of this ritual in its various parts constitutes what Christian theology describes as penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrinal foundation of the Christian understanding of salvation. By “penal” is meant “judicial.” Our sins condemned us to punishment. By “substitutionary” is meant that our punishment was born by another in our place. We are reconciled to God by the death of another; God’s holy wrath is turned away from us because the punishment our sins deserved was born on our behalf by a substitute. This understanding of salvation, front and center in Israel’s sacrificial rituals of atonement, is woven into the warp and woof of Holy Scripture in both the OT and the NT. Everywhere you look this is the way sinner get right with God, by a substitutionary sacrifice that bears their punishment on their behalf.

But what of this other goat, the so-called scapegoat? It isn’t killed; its blood is not sprinkled on the mercy seat or the altar. What is it doing in this ritual? What does it stand for? Well, I think Dr. Packer gets this exactly right.

“The goat [that is killed] is the one that really counts. The action with the scapegoat is only a [dramatic] picture of what happens through the [other] goat. The [other] goat is killed and offered as a sin-offering in the normal way. Thus atonement is made for the people of God. The banishing of the scapegoat into the wilderness is an illustrative device to make plain to God’s people that their sin really had been taken way.” [“Sacrifice and Satisfaction,” J. Boice (ed), Our Savior God, 131-132]

The idea here is the one so beautifully expressed in Psalm 103: the Lord separates our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” That it is the goat that dies that is the true sacrifice, and that the scapegoat is more illustrative of the consequences of the other sacrifices is proved not only by the fact that only here is this second goat ever mentioned, among all the many sacrifices that were offered day by day in the sanctuary, all of which secured atonement, but subsequently in the Bible it is always the death of the sacrifice that makes atonement. To put it another way, the two goats stand for the same deliverance from sin, but depict it in different ways.

The first goat, the one that was killed, effected atonement through the death of a substitute. But, remember, as pious Israelites fully understood and as we read in Hebrews, “the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin.” That is simply a fact of life. That blood could never take away sin, it never did take away sin, and there is plenty of evidence in the OT that God’s people fully understood that fact. The system of sacrificial death in Israel was a divinely appointed means by which Israel could trust in the Lord and his provision for her salvation. Perhaps even faithful Israelites, even the most intelligent and well-read of them, did not fully grasp how all of these animals were themselves prophesies of the coming Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world, but they knew that their sins had to be atoned for, that God’s wrath had to be appeased, that sacrificial death was required, that the Lord was ready to receive that death instead of requiring it of Israel herself, and that by this means those who trusted in the Lord could and would receive the forgiveness of their sins and peace with God.

It comes as no surprise to us that this ritual of blood sacrifice and especially on the Day of Atonement becomes the means by which the work of Jesus Christ is explained in the rest of the Word of God.

  1. So, for example, we read in v. 22 that the “goat shall bear all their iniquities.” That same language is found in Isaiah 53:12, where we read that the coming servant of the Lord would bear the sin of many. Again in Hebrews 9:28 we read that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many,” will appear a second time. Or, again, in 1 Peter 2:24, we read of the Lord Jesus, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree…”
  2. Or consider the ESV’s “remote area” in v. 22, a description of where the second goat was to be released. We said that a more literal translation would be “a land cut off.” In Isa. 53, in the great prophecy of the suffering servant, we read of him that he would be “cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.”

To any biblically literate Israelite that language would have immediately evoked the ritual of the Day of Atonement and its scapegoat. Can anyone say that Isaac Watts didn’t get it perfectly right in his hymn?

Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain,

Could give the guilty conscience peace, or wash away the stain.

But Christ the heavenly Lamb, takes all our sins away,

A sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they.

My faith would lay [its] her hand on that dear head of thine,

While like a penitent I stand, and there confess my sin.

My soul looks back to see the burdens thou didst bear,

When hanging on the cursed tree and knows her guilt was there.

There is a reason why penal substitutionary atonement is the doctrine of the Christian church, why it has repulsed all efforts that have been made to destroy it, and why it is found everywhere in Christian hymns and in Christian explanations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The reason is that it lies face up on countless pages of the Word of God.

Now, as you may know, there have been from the beginning, even within the church, people who have objected to this doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. They have argued that it is unjust for an innocent party to suffer punishment while the guilty party goes free. We would protest if such a thing were regularly happening in our courts. But, of course, that objection ignores the fact of our real and vital union with Jesus Christ and his with us. We are in him because he came for, suffered for, and died for us. Therefore we who were guilty were punished for our sins in the punishment that Jesus bore in our place. Jesus Christ was not simply some innocent person; he was a person who had united himself to us as our representative, a person who made himself responsible for us and who had the authority to do so. The law fully appreciates that principle: that someone may choose to make himself responsible for someone else’s debts.

Or people have objected to this doctrine because of what they imagine to be its characterization of God as someone who is willing to impose punishment on an innocent victim. But, of course, any Christian can see through that objection immediately. God is not imposing that punishment on some innocent bystander. In Christ he is enduring that punishment — our punishment — himself! Jesus Christ is God, and came precisely to suffer and die to save his people from their sins. What greater love is there, after all, than that a person should lay down his life for his friends, all the more that a brother should lay down his life for his siblings?

The real objection that explains the distaste of so many for this doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is that it presumes the necessity of punishment for disobedience to God’s law. The fundamental quarrel of man with God is precisely over the necessity of his obedience to God, the requirement that he submit to God’s demands. They are happy to confess faith in a God who accepts them as they are and makes no demands; they would even be happy for God to lay down his law if the law were a means for them to save themselves, leaving them the captains of their own fate.

But in the Bible the law is the light that shows the dirt in the room, not the broom to sweep it clean! Everyone knows that he or she breaks God’s law, but loving himself or herself, left to themselves they are unwilling to believe that they should be severely punished for their disobedience. The implications of penal substitutionary atonement are universally disagreeable to the natural human heart. Such implications as these:

  1. You are obliged to keep God’s commandments, not do your own will;
  2. You are liable to severe punishment for failing to do so;
  3. You fail to obey the Lord a thousand times a day;
  4. You are incapable of dealing with the problem of your sin yourself;
  5. You are utterly dependent on the good graces of another; you are helpless in other words.
  6. To receive that forgiveness you must believe in all the above and, accordingly, conform your life to these principles: which means you must aspire to obey God in all things, to humble yourself before him, and trust his provision for your salvation.

None of this is congenial to the human heart. The fact is, penal substitutionary atonement  and all its presuppositions are the teaching of the Bible throughout: our sin and guilt, God’s righteous wrath as the response of holy justice to our disobedience, the interposition of a substitute between a judging God and his sinful people, and their grateful, humble, and faithful acceptance of that substitutionary death as grounds for their own forgiveness, I say, all of that is found everywhere in the Bible, clearly and emphatically in the Bible, and, supremely, in the Bible’s own explanation of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

But we cannot leave matters there: with the doctrine alone, however emphatically it is the teaching of the Bible. If that is how people can be delivered from the guilt of their many sins, if that is the only way they can be delivered from God’s judgment, then the great question of life, of your life and of mine, must be this: have you laid your hands on the head of that sacrifice and made it your own — both the one who died and the one who was let loose in the wilderness never to be seen again – have you confessed your sins over that sacrifice and made that sacrifice your own? We read in Isaiah 53 that the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. Are you among those whose iniquity was laid on Christ that he might bear it away? The only way you can know that is to find yourself an active participant in this substitution. If the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all, is your iniquity among all the sins that were laid on him?

As a great preacher once put it:

“Adam laid on [Christ] his fall; Abraham his mistrust; Noah his drunkenness; Jacob his [deceit], Moses his impatience; Aaron and Miriam their envy; David his [lust and murderous intent]; Isaiah his unclean lips; Manasseh his unclean life. The twelve laid on him their particular sins, Matthew laid on him his cruelty and extortion; James and John their mother’s ambition; Magdalene her stained life; the thief that died beside him on the cross his [entire sinful] life; Paul his blasphemy and his persecution of the saints.” [Alexander Whyte, Sermons: 1881-1882, 80-81]

Well, brothers and sisters, what sins have you laid on him? What sins have you confessed, as it were while resting your hands on his head? Can you see yourself standing beside that scapegoat confessing those very sins as your own and transferring them to Jesus Christ to bear them away? And because God and Christ are not limited by time as we are, we can every day and again and again place our hands on his head and add still more sins to those that Jesus Christ will carry away never to be seen again.

Put it to yourselves my guilty brothers and sisters: does the Lord Jesus bear in his body any marks that you yourself placed there? Have you made it impossible for him to say that he never knew you because there are stripes on his flesh that only you and your own sins could have put there?

Here is the Christian faith at its nub: Christ in my place, suffering and dying for my sin, to grant me forgiveness and a place in God’s family. And if that is our Christian faith at its heart, it should certainly be our personal conviction, our daily confidence, the engine of our love and gratitude, and the reason for our serious, earnest, and heartfelt personal commitment to the one who loved us and gave himself for us. And we ought frequently to be found explaining all of this to someone else.