Learning to Love Leviticus 5 – Day of Atonement (16:1-34)

We are at the middle of book, and boy have I learnt a lot already. We are trying to answer the question – How does Leviticus enable God to dwell with Israel so that Israel is safe? We have already looked at the roles of sacrifices in giving thanks and atoning for their sin; the priests who offer them; and how Israel needs to be clean to approach God. This section on the Day of Atonement is the culmination of all these sections so far. However, we have been left with a few questions (for example, what if Israel doesn’t realise an unintentional sin?), and we will see here that we get some answers.

As always if you haven’t Chapter 16 of Leviticus yet, do pause here and read it. You get the idea now, list the good and the bad things for Israel from this section, answer how this section answers our question above (How does this enable God and Israel to safely dwell tether?). Then try to think about similarities and differences between Israel and us, how does this enable us to rejoice in God’s plan, and be more confident about the gospel.

What is this section all about?

This section describes a particular festival that Israel is to celebrate (they are told about many more festivals later as well). The fact that this festival is here, before all the other festivals, tells us how important it is, and that it is also linked to the sections that have come before. So as we read and discuss the Day of Atonement, we should be thinking about all that has already been discussed about the role of sacrifices, priests and cleanliness. The function of the Day of Atonement is to cleanse and atone for all of Israel’s sins and uncleanness. God tells Israel to complete this festival every year.

Colouring – headings for good things for Israel are in green, and headings for bad things for Israel are in blue

Through atonement: the High Priest can enter the Holy Place once a year

The Holy Place is the heart of the tabernacle where God dwells, even the priests are not holy enough that they are able to wander in and out of here whenever they want. The fact that they cannot enter God’s presence is a visual reminder to Israel that God is holier than them, so holy in fact that they cannot fully comprehend it.

However, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest can enter the Holy Place:

“Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place:… (Lev. 16:2b-3a)

This is really significant, the High Priest can safely enter God’s presence. There are lots of sacrifices and conditions that need to be met for it to happen but it can happen! Remember when we discussed that the priests represent Israel, well if a priest can safely enter God’s Presence on the Day of Atonement, this is indicating something about the state of all the people of Israel on this day, not just the High Priest. Israel would be able to see the High Priest go into the Holy Place and visually understand that today is really significant, and that this day fundamentally affects their state before God. So what is going on during the Day of Atonement?

Through atonement: God separates Israel from their sin

The High Priest is not the only visual symbol given to Israel on the Day of Atonement, there is also a ceremony involving two goats. On this day, two goats are selected as a sin offering and are presented before God. Lots are cast and one is sacrificed as a sin offering and the other sent off into the wilderness:

Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Lev. 16: 7-10)

What is the significance of this? As discussed during the sacrifices post, the one presented as a sacrifice dies in the place of Israel for their sins. This sacrifice is special though in that the blood of the sacrifice is taken into the Holy Place and sprinkled on the mercy seat, to atone for their sins and their uncleanness:

15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions (Lev. 16: 15-16a)

I think this is visually showing Israel how difficult it is for God to dwell with sinful people, as they taint not only themselves but also the Holy Place where God dwells, and if it is not holy he cannot dwell with them without there being death.

The second goat is kept alive, and, once the High Priest leaves the Holy Place he stands over the goat, confesses the sins and iniquities of Israel, then sends it off into the wilderness:

22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16: 22)

The goat that is driven into the wilderness, provides a powerful image for Israel about how God is determined to remove their sins and its consequences from His presence. The sins of the people are placed onto the goat, then the sins are physically removed from the camp by driving the goat into the wilderness. The punishment for those sins (death) will also be paid for by the goat which is sent off into the wilderness, as it will be unable to survive alone in the wilderness, and therefore they are sending it off to die too.

How encompassing is this day then, which sins are atoned for?

Through atonement: Every year Israel is cleansed of ALL their sins

All sins and all uncleannesses are atoned for:

16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. (Lev. 16:16)

21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. (Lev. 16:21a)

30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. (Lev. 16:30)

34 And this shall be a statute for ever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. (Lev. 16:34a)

This is amazing news if you are an Israelite. Every year you probably commit a whole load of sins that you don’t know about! This could cause a lot of worry and problems. Does this make you not right with God? What if I need to actively work out my every sin to make a sacrifice for each of them? If there was not a Day of Atonement, and I was an Israelite, I would be constantly paralysed with worry, trying to figure out everything I had ever done wrong. It could also cause a real problem with God and Israel dwelling together, a single sin left unatoned for could cause the death of all of Israel.

However, God, in his kindness, set apart a whole day where all of Israel’s sins can be forgiven! God gives them the Day of Atonement to atone for being unclean and sinful while he dwells with them. So this day allows them to be as they ought to be before the Lord, unsinful and clean.

Remember, this is really important, the consequences of being unclean or sinful in God’s presence is death, so this is a piece of really good news. It gives us hope for the possibility of Israel being able to safely have relationship with God.

Through atonement: Is Israel protected from future sins?

This day is amazing and it sounds great, Israel is clean and unsinful again and therefore right with God. The question we are left with though is: does this ultimately fix the problem of a nation that is inherently sinful and unclean being able to dwell with God? What about the day after the Day of Atonement, is Israel safe then? Our gut feelings say one day a year is not enough. The Day of Atonement deals with the sins of the previous year, but not the sins of the year to come:

34 And this shall be a statute for ever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. (Lev. 16: 34)

If this day dealt with future sins, it would not need to be repeated every year. So what about us, why don’t we need a Day of Atonement?

Through atonement: Are Christians separated from their sins?

The Day of Atonement is consigned to the past because all our sins and uncleannesses past, present and future were dealt with on the cross:

12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb. 10: 12-14)

We see here that all our sins have been atoned for like in Israel, but that our sacrifice is timeless and does not need to be repeated every year. We now can also enter God’s presence freely, but through the blood of Jesus, rather the blood of a goat:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10: 19-22)

We can see here how blood also alters our relationship and atones for our sins, so that we can enter the holy places, just as in Leviticus. Here it shows us though that all Christians can enter the holy places not just one chosen person.

Finally, let’s see the parallel for God separating our sin from us:

24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Pet. 2:24)

Here is one verse that says so much. In essence, we see here that Jesus took our sins on the cross, in a similar (but much more sufficient way) as the goat took Israel’s sins. Jesus also took the punishment for our sin by dying on the cross, so that we would not need to be punished for our sins. This has separated us from our sin, such that we are now dead to sin. If sin is dead to us, we can’t get much more separated from it! God has achieved his plan of restoring a people whom he can have a relationship with safely, without compromising his character.

This is something we should definitely praise God about! We can praise him for enabling us to be able to enter his presence with confidence, for no reason of our own. We can also thank God that our future sins do not put in doubt our eternal destination. Our assurance is in our perfect sacrifice, which perfectly atones for all of us forever!

Next Post

Next post I am going to look at Holiness (17:1- 22:23). Holiness has already come up quite a bit, but this is the section where it takes the spotlight. Again over the course of the next week, why not take a look at this section and try to answer some of the questions from the prep post (Learning to Love Leviticus Extra: How can we read Leviticus so that we understand it better?). You could use one or more of your quiet times to do this maybe?

As always, I would love to hear people’s thoughts (even if you disagree with me). I hope you are beginning to feel excited about Leviticus, and a little bit like you are now able to tackle it on your own and learn something.

(All scripture quoted from English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)


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