Leviticus 1–15 presents a series of events that recall mankind’s original creation and fall. The tabernacle and its worship were established as a new Eden with Aaron and his sons placed within to serve and guard it. The Levites were even given to the priests as suitable helpers. However, in Leviticus 10, two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, sinned by offering unauthorized fire to the Lord. As a result, fire went out from the presence of the Lord to devour them.
The judgment of Nadab and Abihu represented a crisis for the order of the tabernacle – an event akin to a new fall. The five chapters that follow remind us of the judgment of the Lord in Genesis 3. Leviticus 11 designates animals that we might compare to the serpent as unclean for human consumption. Then, just as the judgment on the woman followed the judgment on the serpent in Genesis 3, Israel receives laws regarding childbirth in Leviticus 12. Chapters 13-15 deal with skin diseases and bodily discharges, emphasizing the corrupt character of human flesh and how its unnatural exposure through disease or discharges can be messy.
At the beginning of Leviticus 16, there is a reminder of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu and the problem they pose for Israel. These two examples show what happens when corrupt human flesh comes face to face with the burning holiness of God. If the Lord is to live among his people, there must be ways to deal with human corruption, defilement, and trespasses. This measure – the Day of Atonement – is what Leviticus introduces at this pivotal moment.
Yom Kippur, commonly translated as Day of Atonement, was a fixed fast that occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month. Of all the days marked in Leviticus 23, this was the highlight. On the Day of Atonement, the entire sacrificial system was restarted. After a year of accumulating sins and impurities, symbolically polluting the system and its ministers, the Day of Atonement cleanses and restores the entire system.
If the Lord is to live among his people, there must be ways to deal with human corruption, defilement, and trespasses.
The Day of Atonement was the only day a priest could enter the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies), the inner room of the tabernacle or temple which contained the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat. On that day the high priest entered the most holy place with incense and sprinkled the mercy seat with the blood of the two offerings of purification: a bullock for the high priest and the goat on which the lot had fallen for the people.
While the flesh of the other purification offerings was destroyed by fire in a clean place outside the camp, the second goat – the so-called scapegoat – of the Day of Atonement was expelled into the wilderness, the kingdom of formless, demons and death. Before he was sent, the high priest confessed the iniquities and transgressions of Israel concerning him. The goat would bear the sins of Israel in the vast void of the desert.
One may be tempted to view these rituals as mechanistic, as if they were carnal and heartless ceremonies. This would miss the emphasis in Leviticus 23:26-33. This passage presents the Day of Atonement ceremonies as a symbolic representation of the Lord’s gracious cleansing of his sinful people, with the people’s participation (by fasting and self-affliction) showing their voluntary entry into this gracious cleansing, a kind of staged prayer that receives God’s gracious forgiveness.
The author of Hebrews reflects on the significance of the Day of Atonement in Hebrews 9, considering it in relation to the structure of the tabernacle and the temple. The most holy place was the divine throne room, containing the ark of the covenant, above which the Lord was enthroned between the cherubim. His purification on the Day of Atonement ensured that the Lord’s wrath would not break out against his people and marked the culmination of the process graciously given by the sacrificial system of ascent to the Lord and enjoyment of fellowship with him.
One may be tempted to view rituals as mechanistic, as if they were carnal and heartless ceremonies. That would miss the emphasis of Leviticus.
Yet the fullness of peace and fellowship could not be experienced through the old system. According to the author of Hebrews, the tabernacle and the temple were types of celestial archetypes filled with reality. Only one person, only one day of the year, could enter the most holy place. It means “the way to the holy places [was] not yet opened” (Heb. 9:8). With the coming of Christ, however, the way through the veil to the holiest was opened (Heb. 9:11-12).
Understood in this way, the Day of Atonement is both symbolic and anticipatory of the work of Christ, upon whom forgiveness ultimately rests. The efficacy of the Old Testament sacrificial system rested on the promise of the future act of Christ.
When God’s dwelling with his people in the new Eden of the tabernacle was threatened by human intrusion and corruption, he provided for a day of atonement when fellowship could be graciously preserved through sacrifice. Yet, as Hebrews points out, the blood of bulls and goats does not take away sins. Christ is the One whose sacrifice truly purifies the heavenly holy places, and He is the One who, like the scapegoat, completely takes away and takes away our sins.
This article is part of a growing series on Jewish holidays which also includes the Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Lights, Feast of Purim, Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost.