Chapter 16 of Leviticus is the main source of information in scripture about the Day of Atonement; chapter 17, which deals with the sanctity of blood, is indirectly related to it.
Atonement is not a New Testament doctrine as such; it is related to the Old Covenant. The word ‘atonement’ only occurs once in the Authorised Version of the New Testament. That is a mistranslation which should properly be rendered ‘reconciliation’.
A common mistake is to explain atonement by rendering it at-one-ment. W. E Vine says this is entirely fanciful. What then does the word ‘atonement’ mean? William Wilson in his Old Testament Word Studies gives these definitions: ‘to cover, to cover sin, or to secure the sinner from guilt or punishment’. He adds, ‘This word conveys the idea both of pacification of wrath, and of the covering of transgression, but does not seem to express of itself the idea of full and adequate satisfaction for sin’, (italics mine).
Accepting that ‘cover’ is an accurate definition, the Day of Atonement indicated that through sacrifice the sins of the worshipper were covered for one year. This, however, was always in prospect of Christ’s sacrifice as the Lamb of God. Only He could provide the ultimate sacrifice for sin, John 1. 29. It was no longer a matter of covering sin, but of removing it eternally, Heb. 10. 1-18.
Notwithstanding this transitory nature of atonement, the Day of Atonement was the most solemn of all holy days observed by the Jewish people. It was the only fast day prescribed by the Law. C. I. Scofield says of it, ‘The Day of Atonement was the most important single day in the Hebrew calendar. It is often called simply, ‘The Day’, in modern usage ‘Yom Kippur'’
Chapter 16 is therefore central to a consideration of atonement, although scripture gives other supplementary information, cf. Ex. 30. 10; Lev. 23. 26-32; 25. 9; Num. 29. 7-11.
Introduction, 16. 1-10
We are immediately referred back to the sin of Nadab and Abihu (see previous article, Precious Seed, Vol 44, No. 3, on ‘The Priesthood’). They sought to approach the Lord in the wrong way; the right way was now given, a way that would bring to life, not death. The word of the Lord coming through Moses to Aaron begins in a cautionary way by warning that it is not for the high priest to approach God on his own terms. He was to come at the appointed time and in the appointed way, in contrast to the two elder sons of Aaron who had entered the sanctuary casually and profaned the holiness of God. The high priest alone was to enter the Holy Place, and only once a year at the time decreed, never without blood. He had to sacrifice for himself and then for the sins which the people had committed in ignorance, Heb. 9. 7.
The sacrifices for the high priest and his family were a young bull as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering. For the people, two kids of the goats as a sin offering were to be presented, and then a ram as a burnt offering. The high priest was to wear the priestly garments, Exod. 28. 36-43, washing himself as he put them on.
The whole picture is one of the utter holiness of God who requires complete obedience and self-abasement in those who approach Him. They must come by way of the sacrifice which God has provided. As then, so now.
Verses 6-10 give an outline of what is to follow. The sacrifices to be offered for the people are two goats. By lot, one is to be chosen as the scapegoat which would be dispatched into the wilderness after being ‘presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it’. The other ‘for the Lord’ was to be sacrificed as a sin offering.
What was the ‘scapegoat’? The Hebrew word means ‘the goat to go away’. In Numbers 29. 11 the scapegoat is called ‘the sin offering for atonement’. After being presented before the Lord, hands having been laid on it and the sins of the people confessed over it, the animal was allowed to escape ‘to bear away, unto a land not inhabited, all the sins of the people. This was done (the sin offering and the scapegoat) in order to make atonement (Kaphar), from which developed the name ‘Yom Kippur’ (Coulson Shepherd).
It should be noted that the Lord’s lot fell on the goat sacrificed, and the people’s lot fell upon the scapegoat. The former would speak of the death of Christ to satisfy God’s justice, the latter His mercy in pardoning the sinner. Thus the Day of Atonement was ‘a shadow of things to come’, Col. 2. 17.
Atonement was made for the high priest himself, vv. 11-14, for the tabernacle, vv. 15-19, and the people, vv. 20-28. The sin offering for Aaron and his house was different from usual, as chapter 4. 3-12, in that instead of the blood being sprinkled in front of the veil of the sanctuary and on the altar of sweet incense, here it was taken inside the veil and sprinkled on and before the mercy seat. The high priest entered three times, first with a censer of burning coals on which incense was burnt, second with the blood of the bull to sprinkle it on and before the mercy seat, and third with the goat’s blood.
In this solemn act of worship one vital fact for all ages is made abundantly clear, ‘Without shedding of blood is no remission’, Heb. 9. 22. We live in a time when a ‘popular gospel’ which makes little or no reference to the blood of Christ is commonly preached. We need to be reminded that without that precious blood, there is no cleansing – and no true gospel.
When the priest and tabernacle were cleansed, the people could be presented so that atonement could be made. In symbol, the sin was transferred to the scapegoat after it was dealt with in the sin offering. It was then removed. All of this found its fulfilment in Christ. The remains of the bull and goat presented as sin offerings were then taken outside the camp for burning. And so He died outside the gate.
But the Day of Atonement recurred every year; the covering was re-enacted every year in prospect of Calvary. There is no need of covering now; reconciliation has been made through the death of Christ for all eternity.
Ceremony, 16. 29-34
The Day of Atonement was established as an institution in the Hebrew calendar. It was observed annually on the 1Oth day of Tishri, the seventh month. It was to involve genuine repentance and self-humbling (‘afflict your souls’ AV, which probably included fasting). It was to be ‘a Sabbath of rest’.
It was a national and collective reminder that sins which had accumulated during the year past were covered. The nation was called together by the Feast of Trumpets which preceded it, and it was followed by the Feast of Tabernacles. These pointed forward to the time still future when Israel will be called together to recognize her King and to enter into the covenant blessing promised to her, portrayed in the Feast of Tabernacles. But in between these two feasts was the solemn Day of Atonement, a reminder that central to Israel’s hope, and the world’s, is the substitutionary death of Christ of which the Day spoke.
Year after year the ‘covering’ was renewed. The high priest had to perform the ritual again and again. Reflecting on this, the writer to Hebrews said, ‘But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever sat down on the right hand of God’, Heb. 10. 12.
Why? Because we have been ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood’. Rom. 3. 24-25.
Significance, 17. 1-16
This chapter concerns the children of Israel in general, not the priesthood in particular, vv. 1-2. Meat of domestic animals could only be eaten after it had been presented as a peace offering, v. 5. This would provide for the priests and prevent sacrifice to idols, cf. 7. 20-21.
There were two reasons why blood was not to be consumed. The life of the flesh is in the blood, it being necessary for life to exist. And, blood makes atonement for the soul, being the ransom price of redemption. It was therefore most sacred and must never be consumed.
As an appendix, verses 13-16 concern non-domestic animals hunted as game. It cost the hunter nothing and could not therefore be offered to the Lord. However the ban on taking blood still applied, as did ritual washing and bathing, and the period of uncleanness until evening.
The sanctity of blood is a continuing message of scripture. It began with the direction given to Noah, Gen. 9. 4-6. It culminates in the revelation of our Lord as ‘a Lamb as it had been slain’ in the midst of His saints in glory, Rev. 5. 6-10. It was no afterthought when early church leaders in freeing Gentile believers from the strictures of the Law, asked that the sanctity of blood should be observed, although no doubt it also had reference to idol-worship, Acts 15. 20.
To respect blood is to reverence life; to respect life is to reverence God. The Day of Atonement gives us a solemn reminder of what the blood of sacrifice meant to God, a thought developed in chapter 17. Leviticus would say to us today, be careful to reverence what God holds so sacred. Remember that you are cleansed by the precious blood of Christ.