Thursday, February 08, 2007

Leviticus 16

Leviticus 16: The Day of Atonement


As you may recall, from previous chapters in Exodus that described the Tabernacle, it had three distinct areas: the Outer Court, where the Altar and wash stand were located; the Holy Place, where the lampstand, table, and Altar of Incense were located; and the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, where the Ark was located.

(Click the picture for a larger version. This may not be 100% accurate, but it’s as close as I could get it. The relative dimensions should be correct, except that I couldn’t find out how long the Tent of Meeting was; it’s 4.5 metres wide, but I didn’t find a specification for how long.)

Most of the activities, regarding sacrifices and all of that, took place in the Outer Court. The priests also had to enter the Holy Place on a regular basis, to keep the lampstand and incense going. But the Most Holy Place was almost completely off limits. Nobody was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place except for the High Priest, and even he was only allowed to enter once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month—the Day of Atonement.

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.” (verses 1–2)

This chapter outlines the rules and ceremonies that were to be observed on the Day of Atonement.

  • When the High Priest—Aaron or his descendent—was going to enter the Most Holy Place, on the Day of Atonement, he was to be wearing his sacred clothes.
    • Because the clothes were sacred, he was to be sure to bathe, first, before putting on the garments.
  • He was to bring a bull for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering; the Israelite community were also to provide him with two male goats, for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering.
  • The bull was to be offered to atone for the High Priest’s sin, and the sin of anyone in his household.
  • He was then to “cast lots” for the two goats; one of the goats would be offered to the LORD and the other would be the scapegoat.
    • For all intents and purposes, think of “casting lots” as throwing dice, or something similar. The idea was that the LORD would control the outcome of the lots—in effect, He would choose which goat would be used for which purpose.
    • The goat which was chosen for the LORD would be offered as a sin offering.
    • The other goat would become the scapegoat. This will be described shortly.
  • When the High Priest had slaughtered the bull, he was to take a censor full of burning coals from the altar, and two handfuls of incense, and take them “behind the curtain”—that is, into the Most Holy Place.
    • When he entered the Most Holy Place, he would put the incense on the coals, so that the smoke from the incense would conceal the atonement cover. This was done so that the High Priest wouldn’t die, from looking at it.
    • He would then take some of the bull’s blood and sprinkle some of it on the atonement cover. He would then sprinkle some more of the blood seven times before the atonement cover.
    • When this was done, he was to do the same thing with the goat that had been brought for the Israelites’ sin offering; slaughter it, and bring some of its blood into the Most Holy Place, to sprinkle on and before the atonement cover.
I’ve gone on and on about the need for the Israelites, the priests, and even the High Priests, having to cleanse themselves of their sins, because the LORD dwelt with them. It was all done on a regular basis—every time someone sinned, sacrifices were made. But the Day of Atonement is different; once per year, they offered these sacrifices for any sins they might have missed. In this way, they “made atonement” for the Most Holy Place, so that the LORD would continue to dwell there. As it says in verse 16a:

In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.

The High Priest was then to make atonement for the Tent of Meeting, and the altar.

Now we come to the scapegoat:

  • Once the High Priest had atoned for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, he was to lay both hands on the scapegoat’s head, and confess over it “all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head” (verse 21).
  • He would then send the goat away into the desert. (Someone was to be appointed to take the goat.) The goat would carry all of the Israelites’ sins into the desert.
    • The man in charge of bringing the goat was to bring it to a solitary place, and then release it into the desert.
    • He was then to wash his clothes, and bathe himself with water, before he would be allowed back into the camp.
I don’t know if it has any significance whatsoever, but I notice that the High Priest is to lay both hands on the goat’s head. For other sacrifices, I don’t think it was specified like that. In any event, it probably goes without saying that this is where the term “scapegoat” comes from.

  • Once all of these duties were done, the High Priest was to go back into the Tent of Meeting, take off his sacred garments, and leave them there. He was then to bathe, and put on his normal clothes.
  • He was then to sacrifice the burnt offerings for himself and for the people, and burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
  • The remains of the sin offerings—the bull and the goat—are then to be taken outside the camp, and burned up.
    • The man who burned them was then to wash his clothes and bathe himself, before he was allowed back into the camp.
These seem like cleanup activities; the atoning had already happened. I find it interesting, though, that the High Priest is to offer some burnt offerings in his normal clothes, instead of in his sacred clothes.

The chapter ends with a summary, and a commandment for the Israelites to “deny themselves” on the Day of Atonement:

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community.

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”

And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses.

(verses 29–34)

I believe, when it talks about the Israelites “denying themselves,” that it’s referring to them refraining from sexual relations, and probably fasting, as well.


I don’t have too much to say about this chapter, except that I can’t read it without thinking about the book of Hebrews. The fact that the High Priest had to enter the Most Holy Place year after year, and keep offering sacrifices both for his own sin and for the people’s sin, is pointed out as being inferior to Jesus’ sacrifice, which was once for all. And the reason for that is that Jesus didn’t have any sins to atone for—the High Priests weren’t perfect, and, therefore, they couldn’t atone for the people’s sin properly. They had their own to deal with.


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