The Day of Atonement

by Michael Morales

Atonement—that is, reconciliation between God the Creator and sinful humanity—is at the heart of the Pentateuch’s theology. Indeed, the Day of Atonement is found at the literary center of the Pentateuch’s central book, Leviticus 16. Simply called “the Day” by ancient Jews, the Day of Atonement is dubbed a “Sabbath of Sabbaths” in Scripture (Lev. 16:31), a day of solemn convocation where all members of Israel were called to participate both by ceasing from labor and by “afflicting [their] souls” (Lev. 16:29)—understood as the one annual day of fasting mandated by the LORD. Failure to observe this Day would result in being “cut off” from among God’s people and being “destroyed” by the LORD, a sobering threat meant to underscore the gravity of the liturgy (Lev. 23:26-32). The ritual drama performed by the high priest, along with the severe warnings against neglecting this convocation, served to catechize Israel about the dire need for cleansing and the forgiveness of sins. The Day of Atonement ritual in Lev. 16 is explained as making atonement for Israel, cleansing God’s people from all their sins, but also as cleansing and making atonement for the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Within the horizon of the New Testament, the theological seed of the Day of Atonement contained within itself a dormant prospect that would sprout out of the soil of Israel’s sacrificial system, and blossom forth into the person and work of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—God’s foundational and decisive work of atonement for his people.

An Elaborate Sin Offering: the need for blood

Although ending with whole burnt offerings, the Day of Atonement ritual was essentially an elaborate sin offering (also called “purification offering”): that is, a sin offering with various elements expanded and added to it. The sin offering, as detailed in Leviticus 4, was about expiation and cleansing from sin, and such priestly work of atonement is portrayed as necessary for Israelites to be forgiven by God (Lev. 4:31, 35).

To be sure, divine forgiveness assumed true repentance, which thereby placed one’s sin under the heading of “unintentional” (Lev. 4:2, 13, 22, 27). The key feature of sin offerings was blood, the manipulation of blood within the Tent of Meeting and upon the altar, by sprinkling, daubing, or pouring (see, e.g., Lev. 4:6-8). In this way, atonement and blood are deeply linked. Indeed, the LORD declared that he had given Israel blood upon the altar because the life (or, more literally, “the soul”) of flesh is in the blood, and it is, therefore, “blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Lev. 17:11)—life for life. Accordingly, the author of Hebrews reminds Christians that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Heb. 9:22).

Entering God’s Presence: the need for a high priest

The work of atonement was primarily the work of the high priest, who was the only human being appointed by God to enter the holy of holies in the Tent of Meeting, and this but once a year and only with blood. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would remove his garments of glory and beauty, wash his body with water, and then don simple linen garments—nonetheless holy for such plainness—for the main labor of atonement (Lev. 16:4). After completing the elaborate sin offering with two goats, he would wash once again and put on once more the garments of glory and beauty before offering up the whole burnt offering, along with the fat of the sin offering (Lev. 16:24-25). Between these washings, and while he wore the humble clothes of a servant, the high priest used blood to cleanse God’s earthly dwelling, entering the holy of holies where the LORD God, dreadfully majestic in holiness, would appear in a cloud above the atonement-lid of the ark (Lev. 16:2). For this purpose, the high priest (originally Aaron then a descendant of his line among the Levites) was consecrated above his brothers with the oil of anointing (Lev. 8:12). The high priest is therefore called the “anointed priest” (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:22), using the designation mashiach from which we get the title “messiah” (“anointed one”). Indeed, if one only had the Pentateuch for a Bible, the Messiah would be expected to come as a high priest for the sake of making atonement for God’s people.

To Dwell with God: the need for atonement

As part of the profound theology of atonement in the Old Testament, sin was understood as both deeply-seated within the heart and exceedingly defiling. Because the earth had been polluted by humanity’s sin and consequent death, the LORD God who is the fountain of life could not dwell with his people—yet this was the very purpose for which he had created the heavens and earth. The Tabernacle (and later Temple) was, therefore, a provisional “creation in miniature,” an architectural cosmos that would allow the holy Creator to dwell in a sacred, clean “house” among his people. Again, the Tabernacle was a temporary solution during the interim before the establishment of a new (that is, newly cleansed and renovated) heavens and earth. But even during the interim, God taught and warned his people that his earthly abode, the Tabernacle, could not remain in the midst of his people when defiled by the uncleanness of their sins. Although faithful Israelites would offer sin offerings throughout the year, their own consciences surely testified to the inadequacy of their repentance, let alone remembrance, of sin. If one were to offer sin offerings (typically a young goat) for every sin committed in a single day, one would never leave the Tabernacle precincts and would become exceedingly poor in the process since livestock were a precious commodity. Many sins, then, had not been dealt with through the cleansing blood of atonement. Worse still, Israel’s sins spread their uncleanness so that the Tabernacle would steadily become defiled; without a remedy, God would need to remove his holy presence from among his people. Such a need for comprehensive forgiveness and cleansing from sin was addressed by the Day of Atonement ceremony, allowing for a fresh start annually—a new year, as it were.

The analogy between creation and the Tabernacle proves prophetic. If the high priest, through the blood of atonement, could cleanse God’s architectural cosmos (i.e., the Tabernacle) from sin’s defilement, then could such cleansing also be possible for creation itself? The book of Hebrews teaches precisely this point. Jesus was not a Levitical high priest, linked to the Tabernacle as a miniature copy of the cosmos. Rather, the Son of God is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, and has accomplished creation’s Day of Atonement, cleansing God’s people and the cosmos definitively from sin’s defilement. With his own blood, Jesus entered heaven itself, the reality which the Tent’s holy of holies only copied. All of God’s people, from every era and nation, will dwell with him in glory in a new heavens and earth because of the Messiah’s work of atonement. A foretaste of that glorious life may be experienced every Lord’s Day as the church below enters through the new and living way—the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ—into the joys of the heavenly Mount Zion (Heb. 12:22-24).

Two Goats: the need for penal substitution

Turning to the fundamental ceremony of the Day of Atonement, the high priest would bring two young goats before the LORD’s presence at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and cast lots to appoint one goat as a sacrifice for the LORD and the other as a scapegoat to carry the sins and rebellions of Israel into the wilderness, a place “outside the cosmos” theologically (Lev. 16:10). Traditional Jewish interpretation understands these goats to be identical in every way, and the legislation indeed presents them as two aspects of one sin offering (Lev. 16:5). The goats are taken from the congregation of Israel and stand as substitutes for God’s people.

Typically, as evident in the legislation for sin offerings in Leviticus 4, the Israelite worshipper would press his hand upon the head of the goat so as to identify himself with the goat as his vicarious substitute, a gesture that communicated, “This animal stands for me, in my stead” (4:4, 24, 29, 33). In the case of congregational sins, the elders as representatives of the whole congregation would all place their hands on the animal together (4:15). To serve as a sacrificial substitute, the animal had to be “without blemish” (4:3, 23, 28, 32), a term translated as “blameless” when used of people. This term unfolds the theology of Israel’s sacrificial system: unblemished animals represented the sort of blameless life, whole-heartedly devoted to the LORD, whose sacrifice would be accepted by God in the place of the repentant Israelite sinner. All sacrifices, moreover, involved a burning rite where at least a portion of the animal was placed upon the altar, transforming the flesh into fragrant smoke that would ascend as a pleasing aroma to God in heaven, vividly portraying the appeasement of God’s wrath. Through the blameless substitute of a sacrificial animal, the Israelite worshiper not only paid the penalty of sin through sacrifice but also drew near the LORD.

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would take the blood of the blameless substitutionary goat and enter into the Tent of Meeting, which involved a westward movement. While humanity had been exiled eastward away from God’s presence in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24; 4:16), the high priest as a new Adam reversed that exile as he entered westward into God’s presence, through the cherubim-clad veil, into the holy of holies with the blood of atonement. Having created a cloud of incense smoke to shield his eyes from the theophany (God’s glorious appearance) above the ark’s atonement-lid, the high priest would begin an eastward sprinkling of the blood of atonement, first behind the ark and then before it, within the veil. Then he would also cleanse the holy place with the blood of atonement before continuing eastward, outside in order to daub and sprinkle blood upon the altar. Although scholars are not in agreement as to the logic of how the blood manipulation was understood by ancient Israel, it is clear that the end of such application of blood to sacred objects resulted in “making atonement” for them, cleansing God’s dwelling from the defilements of Israel’s sins.

While the first goat, the goat “for the LORD,” represented a blameless substitute by which Israel might be reconciled to God, cleansing God’s house with atoning blood, the second one, as “the scapegoat,” represented the judgment Israel deserved and would have endured apart from a blameless substitute. The high priest would lay both hands—a different gesture from the previous hand-laying rite of identification—upon the head of the scapegoat and confess all the sins and rebellions of Israel over it, symbolically transferring the heavy load of the people’s many transgressions and their severe guilt to the animal. Then, continuing the eastward trajectory away from God’s presence that had stopped at the altar, the scapegoat would be driven out deep into the uninhabitable wilderness, bearing away all the iniquities of Israel (16:21-22)—indeed, removing their transgressions “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12). Having borne the sins of Israel, the scapegoat’s ensuing judgment (exile away from God) was endured unmistakably in place of Israel. Although there is some overlap in the functions of each goat (as comprising one sin offering together), it may not be too simplistic to say that through the first goat God’s wrath was propitiated—satisfied—by sacrifice, the blood of atonement cleansing his dwelling and people from the uncleanness of their sins, and through the second goat Israel’s sins were expiated, removed far away from them.

The Cross of Christ: the need for the God-Man

Israel’s sacrificial system was as provisional as the Tabernacle itself, meant to school God’s people on the work that could only be accomplished by the Last Adam and eternal High Priest. In the humility of his first advent, Jesus came as the suffering servant to bear upon himself God’s holy and just wrath for our own sins and transgressions. Isaiah uses brutally vivid language, describing the Servant as “despised” and “rejected,” acquainted with “grief” and “sorrows,” being “smitten” “stricken,” “afflicted,” “wounded,” “bruised,” bearing “chastisement,” and lashed with “stripes” (Isa. 53). Aside from the rejection of the Servant by his own people, the primary subject of the action against the Servant—the smiting, afflicting, wounding, and striking— is God the Father.

Yet Isaiah also makes it clear that such suffering is as a penal substitute for God’s sinful people. Indeed, the pronouns tell the whole story: “he has borne our griefs…he was wounded for our transgressions” (53:4-5); although “we all have gone astray…the LORD has laid on him all of our iniquity” (53:6). It is, finally, Israel’s sacrificial system that illumines the theology of the Servant’s suffering, for, as Isaiah explains, the LORD has “made his soul an offering for sin” (53:10). The LORD’s righteous Servant would justify his people, having borne their sins and their judgment upon himself (53:11). The sins of God’s people having been transferred upon the Servant, the sufferings of the Servant are, therefore, judicial sufferings, penal in nature. The Servant’s self-sacrifice pays the penalty for Israel’s iniquities, making true and full atonement so as to justify many. The Servant is thus portrayed in a priestly manner, not only offering himself as a sacrifice—being numbered with transgressors, bearing the sin of many, and pouring out his soul unto death—but also making intercession thereby for sinners (53:12), the twofold work attributed to Jesus Christ as our eternal high priest in the book of Hebrews (8:24-27).

Because, as the author of Hebrews explains, the blood of bulls and goats cannot atone for sin (Heb. 10:4), ultimately, humanity needed a blameless human substitute to satisfy God’s justice—to which Isaiah’s suffering Servant passage gestures. Not only so, but a substitute for the innumerable host of God’s elect required more than one mere human. Jesus taught that gaining the whole world would be insufficient to redeem a single forfeited soul (Matt. 16:26)—how much more so for the souls of all of God’s people. As the God-man, however, Jesus Christ’s sufferings are of infinite value, able to absorb and—praise the Almighty!— exhaust the judgment due to guilty sinners, fully satisfying God’s righteous and holy wrath. As the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Jesus by his suffering and death had even undergirded the provisional efficacy of the Old Testament sin offerings—they were sacramental tokens of Jesus’ penal substitutionary atonement.

In the Day of Atonement’s “blameless” animals, there was thus a shadow of Jesus’ active obedience, his fulfillment of the Law as federal head of his people, even his full-hearted love for the Father. In the sacrifice of the goat for the LORD and in the exile of the scapegoat, we see a dim silhouette of Jesus’ passive obedience as our sin-bearer, loaded down with our transgressions, guilt, and shame, judged and exiled with the torments of hell for our sakes. Even the sacrificial system of ancient Israel, including its Day of Atonement, though founded upon the doctrine of vicarious substitution in its use of animals and blood, proved insufficient to allay the consciences of guilty sinners who had come to grasp something of the gravity of their filthy rags before the awesome, holy, and Sovereign LORD (Heb. 10:1-4).

The Old Testament sacrifices pointed a bloody finger to the blessed assurance of the salvation found in Jesus Christ alone, the all-sufficient Savior. Because Jesus’ suffering was as a vicarious penal substitute, sinners can find rest for their souls. The dark and thunderous storm of divine judgment that ever threatens a guilty conscience, casting its gloomy shadow over every frivolity and pretense of happiness, cannot be dispelled by mere wishful thinking, hollow forgiveness, or deeply false notions of divine carelessness. A Christian basks securely and with peace of conscience in the warm rays of the Father’s benevolent face only because that storm has already broken in the full measure of its fury upon the crucified Son of God.

Michael Morales is Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus.