LEVITICUS 16: WHAT IS IMPORTANT ABOUT ATONEMENT?
I saw a coffee mug that read, “Don’t confuse your google search with my theology degree.” Biblical texts and theology are no easy concepts to fathom, and even scholars with those biblical degrees have difficulty fathoming the depths of concepts such as the atonement.
Atonement is the topic of Leviticus 16. The atonement is the most important contribution of Leviticus to our understanding of God, Israel, and our Christian faith.
Two major objectives of the atonement are ridding and cleansing. Sins that threatened to separate Israel from God were expiated or removed and the community ritually cleansed in the atonement day ceremonies.
For example, Leviticus 16 is built around various uses of the Hebrew word “Kippur.” This is where we get the modern use of “Yom Kippur,” the Day of Atonement celebrated still in Jewish synagogues. The Day of Atonement was established in Leviticus as an annual ritual of cleansing and purging accumulated sins of the priesthood and Israel during the past year. So, the word Kippur, that can mean variously purging, cleansing, expiating, ransom, covering, atoning, appears repeatedly in Leviticus 16.
First, let’s take a look at what happened, then we will dig more deeply into what atonement meant for Israel and for Christianity.
The atonement is the centerpiece of Leviticus and central to the life of Israel. Why? Because at the heart of the Tabernacle system is the concept of cleansing and purging as preparation for living in the presence of a holy God.
The day of Atonement is the annual way that Israel cleansed and purged ritual impurity and sin from the camp. The immediate mention of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 16 probably indicates that this is a prime example of the kind of ritual impurity—the touch of death and wrongdoing—that needed expiated from the community.
Again the question is, “How are we to live with a holy God? How is the community to address radical impurity in the holy place of Yahweh?”
God is holy so he will not dwell in the presence of sin such as rebellious actions of Nadab and Abihu, shedding blood of a neighbor, or stealing.
Leviticus 16 details how Aaron in particular, and later his sons and other Levite priests who become high priests, are to enter the most holy place each year to effect purification. This annual ceremony was to address the violation between divine and death.
DESCRIPTION OF YOM KIPPUR, THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
On the tenth day of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar (16:29), 10 Tishri (Sep/Oct), an annual atonement day was called for by God.
Aaron does not enter the most holy place any day he chooses but on this day only, because God was present there in a cloud over the atonement cover.
For this special day, Aaron was to bathe before putting on a special garment, a unique white linen tunic (long smock) with linen under garments and a linen turban. Four animals were brought to the Tabernacle courtyard: a bull, two goats, and a ram.
The bull is slaughtered for Aaron’s own sins and that of his household. The blood is sprinkled over the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The ram is given for a whole or burnt offering. Aaron carries a special container of blood into the tent of meeting, past the curtain, into the holy of holies and into the presence of God. In one hand he carries a censer full of burning coals and two handfuls of fragrant incense. He puts the incense on the fire and the smoke conceals the atonement cover above the testimony so Aaron will not die. With his finger he sprinkles the bull’s blood on the front of the ark, then seven times in front of it.
Aaron is then instructed to bring two goats, one as a sacrifice for sin and guilt and one as a symbol of sin leaving the camp, an offering to the wild region outside the community. This wild region is termed, Azazel. They cast lots over the two goats. One was for God and the other was for what we have come to call the scapegoat, which we will return to shortly.
Aaron takes the goat’s blood and also sprinkles it on and in front of the atonement cover for the sins of the congregation. “In this way,” says Leviticus 16:16, “he will make atonement for the most holy place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.” He does the same for the tent of meeting. Then he does the same for the altar in the courtyard, sprinkling blood in the courtyard, sprinkling blood seven times (16:18,19).
Notice here something you may not have before: Aaron is cleansing the tent of meeting and holy of holies so God can dwell there.
My wife, infant daughter, and I spent six weeks with Mennonites in Florida in 1994. With our mostly city-raised mission teammates, we learned how to live a farming lifestyle. Can that be taught in six weeks?
We were preparing for mission work in Africa, so at least when living among Ugandan farmers, we’d look somewhat less foolish. Back at the Mennonite training center, we learned how to care for goats. We checked their gums for anemia, gave them shots for worms, fed them, played with them. Then it came time to slaughter them.
For those wishing to skip a gory detail, you may skip the very next paragraph.
We were to put the goats to “sleep” by conking them on the head with a sledgehammer, then cut their throats. I was nervous. I’d never popped a goat or any animal on the head. I knew this was done millions of times in slaughterhouses to feed me and a hungry world, but I’d never personally done it. I raised the sledge, swung down toward the goat, and the goat moved. Momentum carried the sledge past the goat and to my own leg. I hit my own shin with the sledgehammer. I should have quit but in pain, I swung again and knocked the goat out. I limped away, hurting but feeling happy I hadn’t broken my own leg with the blow.
For the Day of Atonement, a man was chosen for the task of leading a goat out of the camp—ritually and symbolically carrying sin out and damning it to the darkness, the wild place. Now, taking a live goat out of the camp —that I could do!
First, Aaron lays both hands on the head of the live goat and confesses over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites and puts them on the goat’s head (16:21). “The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert” (16:27).
This man who escorts the goat away is ritually unclean until he bathes and changes his clothes outside the camp, then he can re-enter.
The idea of a Scapegoat is still used in modern English. But the concept comes from the amazing world of Leviticus. Scapegoat comes from the Hebrew word Azazel. The exact meaning of the word in Hebrew, Azazel, that has been translated Scapegoat, has been debated for centuries, but here are some possibilities for its meaning:
First, when the word Az-azel is broken down into two parts it sounds like “a goat that escapes.”
Second, some think it simply means, “the wilderness or fierce region.”
Third, still others believe Azazel is the proper name for a demon of the wilderness. They believe the goat is an offering for this evil spirit to keep such spirits away from the camp of Israel.
Today, in modern Hebrew, the words Lekh la-azazel are equivalent to the English “go to hell” or “get lost.” Certainly, whatever the precise meaning of the Hebrew word, Azazel, pictures the action of sending sin out of the camp and into the wilderness or down into hell. This object lesson for Israel ensured that God’s favor and blessings would continue for the nation of Israel.
After the scapegoat has gone to Azazel, Aaron changes into his clothes described in Leviticus 9 and exits the tent to give a burnt offering for himself and the people (16:24,25).
ATONEMENT VS. APPEASEMENT
Atonement is not the same as appeasement. Appeasement implies manipulating a non-existent relationship between two parties in order to realize a self-interested goal. Through atonement, however, God himself graciously provides the means of ridding the sin barrier between Israel and himself. This is different from pagan religions that feared gods to the point of bringing offerings that placated or appeased them so they would not destroy the worshiper.
The God of the universe and of Israel does not need appeased. But in his merciful wisdom he provides a way for his people to restore the covenant relationship that is broken when members of the community put sin between them and their God.
He allows them to cleanse the place so he can continue to dwell with them there. The offering is one of grace to his people, not a demand for appeasement.
As Christians, we view atonement through the eyes of the New Testament writers who see Jesus as the atoning sacrifice, replacing bulls and goats. The blood of cleansing is not blood of animals but of the Son of God. Again, he is not placating his own Father or appeasing him as if God needs such action but is providing the sacrificial means of atoning for sin that separates us from God. In Jesus we have been cleansed as the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, just as the tabernacle or later the temple was cleansed for the presence of God to dwell.
Jesus seems to understand at least part of his own purpose in terms of atoning. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The one big mistake that people often make is to boil atonement down to one form of atoning: penal substitution. Yes, Jesus died instead of us, but as N.T. Wright takes an entire book to point out, atonement is a much bigger concept than the courtroom metaphor of a judge taking the accused’s place. Ransom is another metaphor. Scapegoat is another metaphor. There are many, many metaphors that help us understand more fully what God has done for us, to forgive our sins and allow us to dwell in His gracious and glorious presence.
Paul speaks of the atonement of Christ in Romans 3:25-26: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
Read Hebrews 8-9 in light of Leviticus 16; compare and contrast these two readings. Hebrews 8-9 gives the most detailed re-appropriation of the meaning of atonement for Christians, and it helps us to connect Leviticus 16 and Hebrews 8-9 in order to gain a fuller understanding both of the Old Testament understanding of the concept of atonement and the whole reason for the annual event, and the new way we understand it through Christ.
Singer/Songwriter Michael Card is the best artist/theologian I know who can put the Bible story into words and song. Look up the song, “He Was Heard” by Michael Card on a music service and listen, or look up the lyrics online. Michael Card makes a strong tie to the life and death—the atonement—achieved by God through Jesus Christ and the foundation for this atonement in the life of priests in the world of Leviticus.
Read Leviticus 16 then reflect with others on the following:
1. What do you like about the story?
2. What do you not like about story?
3. What do you think the story is saying to the original audience?
4. What is the story saying to us today?
5. What is the story calling us to believe?
6. What is the story calling us to do?
7. With whom can you share this story this week?
Jesus Christ, our brother, our mediator of the New Covenant, our redeemer and God who was crushed so we might live, we praise you and stand in awe of you. Father, we believe with all our hearts you acted through him to restore us to friendship with you, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit. So, let us fix our eyes upon Him!
As the Hebrew writer says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).
May we consider Jesus, how he endured, so we may not lose heart (Hebrews 12:3).
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.