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David Guzik's Commentaries
on the Bible

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Leviticus 16 - The Day of Atonement

A. Preparation for sacrifice on the Day of Atonement.

1. (1-2) How Aaron should not come into the Holy Place.

a. Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10) were struck down by the Lord because they came into the Holy Place and offered profane fire before the Lord.

b. Therefore, Aaron cannot come into the Holy Place any time he pleases, but only at God's invitation - at the appointed time and place.

i. The same is true today: We can only come into God's Holy Place at His invitation. Blessedly, the access has been opened wide because of Jesus' work on the cross for us. Romans 5:1-2 specifically says that because of Jesus' work on our behalf, we have access to God.

2. (3-5) What Aaron needs to bring with him when he goes into the Holy Place.

a. Aaron must come with sacrificial blood to cleanse his own sin and the sin of the nation.

b. Aaron must come clothed with garments of humility; over his ornate garments for glory and for beauty (Exodus 28:2), he wears a holy linen tunic and the linen trousers; he is clothed in simple, humble white.

c. Aaron must come washed (he shall wash his body in water); traditionally, this washing was done by immersion.

d. Aaron must come with two goats and one ram to complete the offering of atonement.

e. This was extensive preparation for an important day; to the Jews, the Day of Atonement was called "the great day" or sometimes even just "the day." It was and remains the only day of commanded fasting on the Jewish calendar.

i. Modern Jews still regard Yom Kippur an important day of fasting, soul searching, and righting wrongs - yet they offer no sacrifice for sin!

B. What the High Priest does on the Day of Atonement.

1. (6-10) Casting lots to choose between the two goats.

a. After the sacrificing the bull as a sin offering for himself (detailed in Leviticus 16:11-14), the high priest casts lots to choose between the two goats.

i. The Talmud stipulated that the two goats be as alike as possible - in size, color, and value.

b. One goat is for the Lord and will be sacrificed as a sin offering; one goat will be the scapegoat (from the English word "escape"), and will be released to the wilderness; each will have an important role on the Day of Atonement.

c. Scapegoat is the Hebrew word azazel. "The meaning of this word is far from certain . . . The word may perhaps signify 'removal' or 'dismissal' . . . Probably the best explanation is that the word was a rare technical term describing 'complete removal.'" (Harrison)

i. The Jews have elaborate traditions about Azazel, saying he is a demonic being that the Messiah will defeat. More likely, azazel simply refers to this goat's function of "removing" sin from Israel.

2. (11-14) The bull for the sin offering.

a. This sin offering was for himself and for his house; before the high priest could make atonement for the nation, he himself had to be clean.

b. The blood of this sin offering had to be sprinkled on the mercy seat, the lid to the ark of the covenant, which sat in the Holy Place. When coming into the Holy Place, he had to come with a smoking censer, giving off a cloud of incense.

i. According to Jewish tradition, it was on the Day of Atonement that the high priest - and only the high priest - could pronounce the name of God, the sacred Tetragrammaton YHWH. When he entered the Holy Place with the blood of the goat set apart to the Lord, he would utter the name. He was the only one, and that was the only time, when the name could be uttered, and the high priest was to pass on the exact pronunciation of the name of God to his successor with his dying breath.

c. The idea is that God was above the mercy seat (I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat, Leviticus 16:2), and as He looked down upon the ark of the covenant, He saw the sin of man - represented by the items in the ark of the covenant: Manna Israel complained about, tablets of law Israel broke, and a budding almond rod given as a response to Israel's rebellion. Then, the high priest would come and sprinkle atoning blood seven times on the mercy seat - on top of the emblems of Israel's sin. God would see the blood cover over the sin, and atonement would be made.

i. This captures the thought behind the Hebrew word for atonement: Kipper, which means "to cover" - sin was not removed, but covered over by sacrificial blood.

ii. The New Testament idea of atonement is that our sin is not merely covered, but removed - taken away, so there is no barrier between God and man any longer.

d. When Jesus offered a perfect atonement for sin, He did not need to make a sin offering for Himself: For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people's, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever. (Hebrews 7:26-28)

3. (15-19) The goat selected for sacrifice makes atonement for the tabernacle.

a. This blood is applied to the mercy seat, but also the tabernacle and altar itself; it cleanses the very house of God, which has been made "unclean" by man's constant touch.

b. The goat that was sacrificed was also like Jesus, in that the goat was spotless, was from the people of Israel (Leviticus 16:5), was chosen by God (Leviticus 16:8), and the goat's blood was taken to the Holy Place to provide atonement.

4. (20-22) The release of the scapegoat.

a. After the high priest's sin had been dealt with, after the tabernacle itself was cleansed, Aaron then would deal with the sin of the people through the transference of sin and release of the scapegoat.

b. This was a perfect demonstration of atonement under the Old Covenant, before the completed work of Jesus on the cross. Sin could be "put away," but never really eliminated - that goat, bearing the sin of Israel, was alive somewhere, but put away.

i. One ancient Rabbi says the goat was taken ten miles out of Jerusalem, and there were refreshment stations each mile along the way for the man escorting the goat out. He would finally go the ten miles, then watch the goat wander off until he could see the goat no more. Then, the sin was gone! The Day of Atonement was considered complete.

c. Sin was put away - but not completely. How could one know for certain that God had accepted the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement? What if someone accidentally encountered the scapegoat in the wilderness? What if the scapegoat wandered back among the people of Israel?

i. Through their traditions, the Jews began to deal with these concerns. "On the head of the scape-goat a piece of scarlet cloth was tied, and the tradition of the Jews states that if God accepted the sacrifice the scarlet cloth turned white while the goat was led to the desert; but if God had not accepted this expiation, the redness continued, and the rest of the year was spent in mourning." (Clarke) Through this, they thought to have a certainty about the work of atonement.

ii. What about the goat? Later, Jews altered the ceremony so the goat would be killed, and have no chance of encountering Israel again. "The Jews write, that this goat was carried to the mountain called Azazel, whence the goat is so called; and that there he was cast headlong; and that the red string by which he was led turned white when God was pleased with the Israelites, otherwise it remained red; and they mourned all that year." (Poole)

iii. Did God always accept this sacrifice? "And the ancient Hebrews write, that forty years before the destruction of the temple, which was about the time of Christ's death, this red string turned no more white." (Poole) When Jesus' blood red body was risen from the dead, and clothed with white garments, it was proof forever that the red had changed to white - and atonement at the cross was perfect and complete!

5. (23-28) Completion of the sacrifices.

a. The high priest and the one releasing the scapegoat would wash, and the sin offering and burnt offering would be completed.

b. When atonement was finished, the priest emerged from the tabernacle in glory - with the humble garments taken off, and now in his normal clothes for glory and beauty.

c. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was humble (Leviticus 16:4), he was spotless (Leviticus 16:11), and he was alone (Leviticus 16:11-14), and he emerged victorious - just like Jesus was in accomplishing our work of atonement.

6. (29-31) What the people do on the Day of Atonement.

a. In contrast to other national days of gathering, the Day of Atonement was a day to afflict your souls; that is, a day of fasting and rest - a sabbath of solemn rest.

i. What do the Jews do today? They also observe the fasting on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur); yet what do they do about the sacrifice?

ii. Some Jews consider their own sacrifice to be a suitable substitute; today some sacrifice a rooster for every male in the family, and a hen for every female, on the day of atonement - a vague shadow of obedience to Leviticus 16.

iii. Some Jews consider charity a suitable substitute for sacrifice; the word "charity" in modern Hebrew is the same as the word for "righteousness."

iv. Some Jews consider sufferings a suitable substitute for sacrifice; among the Jews of Eastern Europe there used to be custom to inflict 39 lashes upon themselves on the Day of Atonement.

v. Some Jews consider the study of the law a suitable substitute for sacrifice.

b. What did God want them to do? To identify with the sacrifice for sin. Afflicting the soul would bring the Israelite into sympathy with the afflicted sacrificial victim, even as the believer identifies with Jesus Christ on the cross.

c. The sabbath of solemn rest would demand a cessation of works, even as the believer is justified and finds atonement apart from his own works, being justified by the work of another. This means that all the charity, all the sufferings, all the study of the law in the world cannot atone for sin - we must rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

i. Yom Kippur ends with the blowing of the Shofar, the trumpet which heralds the coming of the Messiah. An ancient prayer in a Jewish Day of Atonement liturgy reads:

Our righteous Messiah has departed from us,
We are horror-stricken, and have none to justify us.
Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions
He carries who is wounded because of our transgressions
He bears on His shoulder the burden of our sins.
To find pardon for all our iniquities.
By His stripes we shall be healed -
O Eternal One, it is time that thou should create Him anew!

7. (32-34) What the high priest does on the Day of Atonement.

a. To this summary of what was previously described in the chapter is the reminder that this is to be done once a year.

b. Only once a year could any man - and then, only one man - enter into the Holy Place and come near the presence of God.

c. Every year, year after year, this atonement had to be made, showing it was never completed. In contrast, Jesus provided a finished work: For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another; He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (Hebrews 9:24-28)

Copyright Statement
David Guzik's Commentaries on the Bible are reproduced by permission of David Guzik, Siegen, Germany. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Guzik, David. "Commentary on Leviticus 16". "David Guzik's Commentaries
on the Bible". <>. 1997-2003.  


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