The Atonement At Leviticus 16.


1. Introduction: The Background Of Exodus And Leviticus 1-15.

Due to the length parameters, this paper will simply assume that Moses is the primary author of Leviticus, and the whole of the Pentateuch for that matter. This writer believes such a position has stood the test of time and the critics. Behind the legislation in Leviticus is the prior legislation in Exodus, in particular that pertaining to the building of the tabernacle and everything associated with it (25-40).

The Lord explained to Moses the importance of the mercy seat and his presence at 25:21-22, the clothing of the priests (28:31ff), the altar of incense (30:1ff), the bronze laver (17-21), and the anointing oil and incense (22ff.). It is in the chapters preceding 16 that we find the details of both the sin (4; 6:24-30) and the burnt (1; 6:8-13) offerings that are offered on the Day of atonement, the latter legislation pertaining to the priests, while the former to the community. It is thus important to note that Nadab and Abihu sinned against known law.

2. The Macro And Micro Structures.

Taking as a given, that Leviticus has the genre of law code or legislation within the larger context of the Pentateuch, which of course also includes historic narrative, the next question is whether one can discern any structure in the book or the chapter on the Atonement itself. The simplest structure for the book as a whole may be that put forward by Mathews as the first of three motifs that are critical to understanding its message. Firstly, he posits chapter 16 as the ‘bridge’ in the centre, thus also lending weight to its importance within the book.

This chapter’s message is critically important for three reasons. First, the chapter occurs in the center of the book of Leviticus. Like a bridge it connects the two halves of the book. Chapters 1-15 describes the rituals of sacrifice and the purity regulations. Chapters 17-27 describe the characteristics of holy living by the covenant community. The effect of the Day of Atonement made sacrifice, purity, and holy living a possibility for another year.1

His second reason for the chapter’s importance, is that it “best illustrates the theological teaching of Israel’s worship of its covenant Lord.”2 Included here one may think of what is known in Reformed Presbyterian circles as The Regulative Principle of Worship, that is, including in worship only that which the LORD commands, for the example of Nadab and Abihu shows what can happen when the law-word of the covenant pertaining to worship is not followed (10:1-2). It was also the one day that one could suffer death for not observing (Lev. 23:28-30). Thirdly, the message given and the rites performed are also “a template for understanding the message of Christianity.”3

Dr. Currid, in his commentary has six divisions for the book, each of which he views as self-contained manuals or directories. One is on sacrifices for Israel (1:1-6:7), two is sacrifices for the priesthood (6:8-7:38), three is a cleanliness code (11:1-15:33), four is the atonement (16), five is a holiness code (17:1-26:46), and finally six is for the funding of the sanctuary (27).4 Of added significance is the structure of this chapter, provided by Currid, who describes it as an adaptation of an earlier work of Rodriguez, also in the Works Cited.5

This chapter has a well-defined literary and conceptual symmetry. It is structured in the form of a well balanced chiasmus, which can be set out as follows:

   ‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses’ (inclusio)

A  Aaron cannot enter the inner sanctuary (16:2)

    B  Aaron’s special vestments (16:3-4)

        C  People supply sacrifices (16:5)

            D  Animals for Aaron, Yahweh, and Azazel (16:6-10)

                 E  Aaron sacrifices his bull (16:11-14)

                     F  Assembly’s goat is sacrificed (16:15)

                         G  Atonement (16:16-19)

                          G’ Atonement (16:20a)

                      F’ Assembly’s goat is sent to wilderness (16:20b-22)

                 E’ Aaron’s closing ceremonies (16:23-25)

            D’ Animals for Azazel, Aaron and the people (16:26-28)

C’ People rest and humble themselves (16:29-31)

    B’ Anointed priest’s special vestments (16:32-33)

A’ Priest may go once a year into the inner sanctuary (16:34)

   ‘As Yahweh commanded Moses’ (inclusio)6

What is the significance of this structure? “Such a detailed structure underscores the truth that Leviticus 16 is a literary and theological unit that is meant to serve as a short directory of the work of the high priest on the Day of Atonement.”7 Currid also posits that the chapter may be “positioned between the Cleanliness Code (ch. 11-15) and the Holiness Code (chs. 17-27)…as a ray of hope to the people of Israel.”8 The hope of being holy comes because the sacrificial system may seem unbearable, so there was set up a relief offered in forgiveness for both sins of commission and omission, as well asconscience. On a more micro level each new subject material is introduced with the phrase “the LORD spoke” (16:1), usually to Moses but sometimes to Aaron or both. The recent judgment that fell upon Nadab and Abihu underscores the need for the following legislation.

3. Liturgical Procession.

3.1  The Order.

The Day of Atonement proceeded with the following steps. 1. The high priest washed anddressed in plain linen (v. 4). 2. He sacrificed the bull for the sin offering for himself and his family (v. 11). 3. He then took the censer of burning coals and incense inside the veil creating a cloud before the mercy seat, so that he would not die in looking at the Glory-Presence (vv. 12-13). 4. He then sprinkled some of the blood on and before the mercy seat seven times (v. 14). 5. He was to then kill the goat for the sin offering for the people and sprinkle it as he did with the blood of the bull (v. 15). This was to make atonement for all the sins of priest and people (v. 16). No other persons were permitted to enter the tent until this was accomplished (v. 17).

6. The high priest was then to sprinkle, splash, or dash some of the blood on the altar outside the holy of holies, of both bull and goat, on the four horns, and seven times on the altar itself (vv.18-19). 7. Only after making atonement in this manner, was he then to take the live goat and perform the laying on of hands and the sending away to the wilderness (vv. 20-22). 8. The high priest was then to change out of the plain garments, bathe again, and put on the typical garments of his office. 9. He was then able to make atonement with the burnt sacrifice, both for himself and the people (vv. 23-25). 10. The bull and the goat sacrificed were then taken by someone else outside the camp to be burned (v. 27). Both the person who took away and released the scapegoat and those who took away and burned the sacrifices were to wash themselves (vv. 26, 28).

3.2  Significance Of The Thematic Pairings. 

The first thing we should note is that the LORD, in this legislation intended to sanctify both space and time. The holy of holies was the most unique place wherein the Glory-Presence was symbolized and sought (A). There was also a sanctification of time, for it was to be entered only once a year at an appointed time (A’). Secondly, Aaron, and any future high priest needed to be properly clothed (B), and Anointed (B’). Thirdly, the people needed to bring the appropriate sacrifices (C), as well as a humble spirit, if they were to find rest (C’). Fourth, animals had to be provided for all (D and D’). Fifth, Aaron must first provide a bull sacrifice for himself (E), and if he was accepted then he was to conduct the closing ceremonies (E’). Sixth, the assembly’s goat is sacrificed (F), and the ‘scapegoat’ is sent into the wilderness (F’). Finally, atonement is made and completed (G and G’).

3.3  Preparation And Celebration.

It is not common in evangelical circles to think in terms of a liturgical calendar, but that is what we in fact have here. The Day was specifically the 10th in the 7th month, both numbers signifying completeness, perfection, and rest. However, more than the Day was specified. The 1st day of the 7th month actually began with a trumpet call to worship (23:23-25), then followed the Day (vv. 26-32). In preparing for the Day, the people were to humble themselves in sorrow for their sin in fasting and prayer, so that the Day was a solemn day of self-examination (vv. 29-31). Then following the atonement made for sin there was joyous celebration during the Feast of Tabernacles (vv. 33-44). Thus, only as they made atonement for themselves and the tabernacle of the LORD, could they then rejoice in their own tabernacles.

3.4  Time And Place.

There is debate as to what it was that Nadab and Abihu had done, but the main point to take from their example is that they did not follow what the LORD had commanded, and so it was important that Aaron and his descendants heed the legislation here given. The first point to be made is that both the place and time were established by the LORD and not left up to men. The latter part of Exodus prepared the place, and the earlier chapters of Leviticus legislated the sacrifices to be made, and now the priests and people were being instructed what to do specifically on the Day. The goal is for God, as their covenant LORD, to dwell in their midst in the Glory-Presence within “the Holy Place inside the veil.” (v. 2)

3.5  The Veil, Door, Or Curtain, And The High Priest’s Apparel.

It is important to understand the significance of the veil or curtain, and how this is also related to the high priest’s normal apparel. The design of both included the tri-colours of the mediatorial offices. These were blue (for the prophetic word), red (for the priestly blood), and purple (for the royal throne), and these were joined in the veil with the symbol of the cherubim. These of course point forward to Christ in his person and work.9  When the high priest, acting as a mediator, represented the LORD to the people he wore this tri-colour apparel, and when they looked at the veil they would also see this. On the Day of Atonement the high priest was first to go forward to represent himself and the people before the presence of God in plain honest humility of the unadorned linen.

The lavish clothes made him look like a ruler, like someone with authority; but now in the presence of God he was stripped of all honor (Wenham, 230). This may very well be the point of the change of apparel. Milgrom (1016) notes a practical side to this aspect of the priest’s activity. Had he worn the elaborate costume it would have become soiled in the ritual and he could not have worn it afterward to offer the burnt offerings.10

“Perhaps a better way of stating the possible significance here would be that the removal of clothes indicated that the high priest represents someone else.”11 In both cases it is the LORD who prescribes. “Thus it is emphatically stressed that the propitiation achieved in the Holy Place is not of human origin (see v. 17).”12 It was the veil that was torn in two when Jesus’ work as the Christ was complete. This might also be the ‘door’ referred to at Revelation 3:20, which gains one entrance to sit with him on his throne (v. 21).

3.6  The Propitiatory Or Mercy Seat And Holy Of Holies.

There has been some debate as to what is meant by ‘the mercy seat’. Some suggest that it simply meant ‘cover’, both as a cover for the ark, and as referring to the covering of sins. However, this is not borne out by the Hebrew word used.

The noun kapporet is from the same root kpr, “to atone,” which indicates that this object was the place of atonement. The importance of the cover was due to its function as the place of expiation, not merely that it covered the ark. As such it was the locus of God’s presence, the site of God’s condescension.13

“As kapporet is related to kipper, which means to ‘sacrifice oneself (itself) for propitiation’, it may well mean ‘the propitiatory cover’ (cf. Rom. 3:21).”14 Moses had earlier made a lengthy note on the mercy seat at Exodus 25:17-22. Both its time and place were sanctified by the Glory-Presence, symbolized by the guarding cherubim.

The notion of a “seat” probably derived from the imagery of God enthroned on or above the cherubim (e.g., 1 Samuel 4:4; Psalm 99:1). The ark is identified as “the footstool” of God, according to 1 Chronicles 28:2. The better translation is “the place of atonement”; in other words, it was the location where the rite of atonement occurred. It was the place where “(God) will meet with you” (Exodus 30:6). When Moses met with the Lord, it was from above the mercy seat that the voice of God could be heard (Numbers 7:89).15

Moses was instructed to tell Aaron that it was the LORD who sanctifies both time and space, that it was not up to him as to when he would approach the LORD’s presence nor where. What follows in this chapter is to tell him how and why. The why was human sin and uncleanness.

The how was through blood atonement. Before he could mediate between the LORD and the people he had to first address the problem of his own sin, and only then could he address the need of the people. In keeping with the whole sacrificial system there is a gradation in the costliness of the sacrifices offered, so for the high priest the cost was the greatest – a bull of the herd. On the other hand, for the people goats would suffice. The order of treatment begins with the Holy of Holies, and as Aaron is here representing himself and the people to the LORD he is to wear the plain unadorned linen of humility.

Just as an altar was not to be made of human fashioned stone (Ex. 20:25), so here he is to add no work of his own, as though somehow he could influence the LORD by his works. On the other hand, when he would finish with the sin offering he would change into his mediatorial robes to represent the LORD to the people. Between this change of garments he was to bathe his entire body, for biblical spiritual worship is a physical exercise, as Paul also noted (Rom. 12:1).

Throughout the ceremony we get the clear message, that without the shedding of blood there is no remission (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22) Another unique requirement for the high priest began with the incense and hot coals, which he was to offer in the holy of holies, which most regard as creating a cloud of smoke so that he would not be able to either see the LORD’s glory, or be blinded by it, as well as being a sweet aroma before the LORD (Cf. Ex. 33:20; Nu. 16:46-50).

3.7  Two Key Sacrifices.

There are two key sacrifices that are offered on this Day, and it is significant as to the order in which they are offered. These two sacrifices are the sin offering and the burnt offering. Although the latter appears first in the book of Leviticus’ teaching and regulations, it is the sin offering which occurs first on this Day. It seems clear that there is a reason for this. The priests garments are changed in between, as well as the bath associated with this change. When the high priest offers the sin offerings for his own sin and then for the people, he is dressed in the plain unadorned linen wherein he identifies with the people, coming humbly in acknowledgment of this sin.

However, when it comes to the burnt offering he switches to the apparel associated with his office in his representation of the LORD to his people. Only as he offers sin for himself first, can he then offer for the people, and both must offer for sin before they can offer the burnt. It would seem that although both are part of the atonement, the first seems to speak to one’s justification, whereas the burnt offering, being the one sacrifice where the entire animal (except for the skin) is consumed, speaks to our sanctification, and how it must consume our entire being, the giving of the totality of ourselves to the LORD.

3.8  A Scapegoat.

The commentaries note four possible understandings of the second live goat. Some suggest that it refers to a location in the desert, but this is not widely held given that there is no evidence of such a place, and it would have no theological or spiritual significance. Others, like Hartley, suggest that Azazel is the name of a goat demon that inhabited the wilderness.

The position is supported by the fact that the expression “for Azazel” in Leviticus 16:8 stands parallel to “for Yahweh,” suggesting that the two parties belonged to similar categories. In this case the two opposing spiritual forces. According to this view, this goat took Israel’s sins away from the congregation into a desolate region, the abode of Azazel, in order to remove completely from the community the evil power generated by Israel’s sins. In returning all these sins to the demonic power, this ritual removed the power of these sins for harm and discord in the congregation.16

This position is highly unlikely for a number of reasons, the main one being that it is completely contrary to the biblical witness as a whole to suggest that a sacrifice is offered to an evil spiritual force. If anything the treatment of the scapegoat is more of a polemic against such a pagan practice.

This view is found in 1 Enoch 8:1 and 9:6, which suggests that he is a goat demon satyr, later identified with the devil himself. This latter view leads some Christians to conclude that Christ’s ransom was paid to the devil. But in Jewish thought the rabbis never said the goat was a sacrifice (indeed, Lev. 17:7 makes clear that no sacrifice was made to a goat demon) or that a gift was paid to Azazel.17

Frankly, Hartley’s view is even more bizarre when he suggests that sins are returned “to the demonic power,” as though these sins are due to the devil rather than humanity. The traditional view, that this goat is offered as a scapegoat, clearly best fits the immediate context, as well as the biblical-theological context of the canonical witness. The second goat symbolizes the taking away of sins so that they would also be forgotten.18

Although the live goat was obviously not a sacrifice, it was a part of the act of atonement.

The priest placed both hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessed “all” the sins of the people (vv. 20-22). The priest stood in for the people, acknowledging the community’s need for forgiveness. The gesture of resting his hands on the animal’s head indicated that the sins of the people had been symbolically transferred from the people to the innocent goat.19

The high priest himself was also part of this community. The two goats of the people’s offering symbolized that they had a substitute, one which was a bloody sacrifice, without defect, unlike the people, who would atone for their sin, that it symbolized the expiation of sin and propitiation of the LORD’s just wrath, thereby effecting reconciliation.

4.  The Gospel Proclaimed And Foreshadowed.

The New Geneva Study Bible states it well concerning the atonement cover or mercy seat and the blood, as foreshadowing the fullness of the gospel to come.

God symbolically revealed the gospel through this cover on the ark. The ark contained the two stone tablets of the law inscribed by the finger of God himself, representing the eternal moral law of God (Dt. 10:1-5). Since all humans have violated this law, the righteousness of God demands death (Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23). God provided the only means of atonement for his chosen people and for their reconciliation to Him – the atoning blood on the ark’s cover. That blood-drenched cover was the meeting point of the holy God with His unholy people. It symbolized the heavenly sanctuary where Christ has entered with His own blood (Heb. 9:12), blood that is efficacious for all the sins of His people, past, present, and future (Rom. 3:21-26; Heb. 9:15).20

Unlike the Aaronic high priests, Jesus did not need to offer a sacrifice for himself, but only for his people (Heb. 7:26-7).

The writer to the Hebrews notes the following connections in the 9th chapter. After introducing the layout and items of the tabernacle (vv. 1-5), he makes the point that once a year the high priest had to enter the Holy of Holies not only to make atonement for the sins of the people but for his own as well. Up to the time of Christ this needed to be performed every year, but with Christ’s sacrifice there remains no more to be made, it being both perfect and eternal. In Christ both body and soul are cleansed, our consciences are therefore forever released from the guilt of our transgressions. It was at the end of the ages or the last days of the old covenant administration that he “appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (v. 26).

It began with his incarnation, wherein he was made our kinsman-redeemer (Heb. 2:5-18). “In all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (v. 17) Unlike the Aaronic order, he did not need to offer a sacrifice for himself, but like Aaron he also was called (Heb. 5:1-11). As our forerunner we are now able to enter behind the veil, for he has fulfilled the threefold office as the door of entry to the Glory-Presence itself (6:19-20 Cf. 1:1-4). He has also been made The High Priest with an oath, obtaining “a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He also is Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.” (7:11-8:6)

The animal sacrifices pointed forward to something more efficacious and permanent (10:1-7 Cf. Ps. 40:6-8). It is here that the author makes his main point with respect to the law, and the new covenant, through what Christ has done. When he states that “He takes away the first that He may establish the second” (10:9), he means by the first the laws pertaining to the sacrifices, and by the second he means the larger will of God, which with the new covenant is now written upon hearts (8:10 Cf. Jer. 31:33). Furthermore, since as our sin atoning sacrifice, he was led outside the camp (Heb. 13:1-13), and as his disciples we are to follow him there bearing testimony to his finished work, proclaiming this gospel, and teaching his people to obey all that he has commanded (Mt. 28:18-20). Paul and John also allude to the Day of Atonement. They wrote of the propitiation provided by Jesus (Rom. 3:25; I Jn. 2:2; 4:10 Cf. Heb. 2:17). Paul and Peter wrote of Jesus taking away all our sins upon himself and carrying them away (II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13 Cf. Heb. 9:28; Is. 53:5-6).

Rooker nicely summarizes the importance of blood and this Day with the following.

Jesus Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary, of which the tabernacle was but a copy, once for all (Heb. 9:23-24). He entered once for all into the Most Holy Place with his own blood as the sin offering (Heb. 9:12). Indeed, Laubauch believes that Leviticus 16 is critical to the understanding of the concept of the blood of Christ in the New Testament. He observes that the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:2), the blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:19; 1Jn. 1:7), the blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16; Eph. 2:13; Heb. 9:14), the blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27), the blood of the lamb (Rev. 7:14; 12:11), occupies the central position in the New Testament thought. The meaning of the blood, he argues, is derived particularly from the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16).21

“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16 Cf. 10:22)

5.  Conclusion.

The Day of Atonement is a perfect example of the regulative principle of worship – doing only what God commands. There is no ‘natural law’ of true worship. God has given his word so that we would know how we are to approach and worship the LORD. Even the selection between the two goats as to which would be sacrificed is something to be determined by the LORD through lots cast. The need for atonement also extends to the very instruments employed, that being anything associated with the ritual.

Another thing to note is, despite the fact that atonement was intended to cover everything until another year passed, and to include both high priest and people, nevertheless there would always remain a great difference between the Glory-Presence of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, and lowly humble sinful humanity, even when forgiven.

Ross, as is his overall approach, nicely encapsulates in one sentence, what one ought to draw from this passage. “The only way of access into the presence of the LORD is by the application of the atoning blood on the mercy seat and the removal of the sins of the penitent by placing them on a scapegoat.”22 The atoning blood both expiates sin and satisfies or propitiates God’s just wrath against the sinner, that the goal of covenant faithfulness and fidelity might be met, that is peace with God and eternal rest.

End Notes.

  1. 137-138)
  2. (138)
  3. (138)
  4. (14)
  5. (359)
  6. (193)
  7. (193)
  8. (192)
  10. Ross, (318).
  11. Rooker, (215).
  12. Kiuchi, (296).
  13. Rooker, (214).
  14. Kiuchi, (295). “Note that the phrase kipper be ad (to make propitiation on behalf of) occurs in 9:7 and 16:6, 11, 17, 24; it appears only in these chapters in Leviticus. Also, the phrase ’aser lo (for himself, 9:8) appears in 16:6, 11.” (293)
  15. Mathews, (140).
  16. Dictionary, (59)
  17. Ross, (319). (Cf. Mathews, 142).
  18. Sprinkle, (112).
  19. Mathews, (142).
  20. (173)
  21. (225)

Works Cited

Alexander, T. Desmond & David W. Baker Dictionary Of The Old Testament Pentateuch (Illinois: IVP, 2003).

Alter, Robert The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2004).

Clines J. A. The Theme Of The Pentateuch (Sheffield: The University Of Sheffield, 1978).

Currid, John D. Leviticus (Durham: EP Books, 2004)

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook On The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).

Kalas, David The Gospel According to Leviticus, Finding God’s Love In God’s Law (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019).

Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi Leviticus (Illinois: 2007).

Mathews, Kenneth A. Leviticus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009)

Rodriguez, Angel Manuel Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1996, Vol. 34, No. 2 269-286.

Rooker, Mark F., The New American Commentary Leviticus (Nashville: B & H, 2000).

Ross, Allen P. Holiness to the LORD (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).

Sprinkle, Joe M. Leviticus and Numbers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015).

The New Geneva Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995).

Van Pelt, Miles V. (Ed.) A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Illinois: Crossway, 2016).

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book Of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, 1979)

_______, Exploring the Old Testament A Guide to the Pentateuch (Illinois: IVP, 2003).

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