Leviticus 16 And The Day Of Atonement

         Located at the core of the Torah, Leviticus 16 gives readers the explicit instructions on the most important day of the year for the Jewish nation, the Day of Atonement. Also, known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement was and remains at the very heart of the Jewish religion. As applied to the original importance of this ritual, we as Christians today can derive numerous applications through proper exegesis and thematic analysis of the text.

         Immediate context shows the importance of the focus on atonement and cleansing from uncleanness in Leviticus 16. In Leviticus chapter 10, Nadab and Abihu are killed when they come before God in an unworthy manner. In the intervening chapters (11-15), the concern has been the difference between cleanness and uncleanness. Milgrom also points out another similarity between 16 and 11-15 saying that, "Chs. 11-15 have disclosed that all men are liable to contract uncleanness, through food, through death, through sex, or through disease" (227). The preceding chapters (11-15) establish the perfect connection for the Day of Atonement as discussed in Leviticus 16.

         The first two verses provide the setting for the Day of Atonement. In the very first verse, “the Lord spoke to Moses.” This intimate connection between God and Moses is greater than that of even the priests and God. Also included within the first verse is a reminder of the unfortunate death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10). Looking back at their death, we know that they approached God and burnt strange fire which He did not command. This distinct reminder at the beginning of Leviticus 16 focuses the reader on how to properly approach the holy throne of YHWH. If even someone with the authority of a Levitical priest performed actions outside of what God has commanded, they were killed. God’s holiness will not bear the repulsive sins that defiled people possess. The Levitical priests were to purify themselves in the sight of the Lord in order to prevent their immediate death.

         Again in verse 2, the personal address of God to Moses reflects the intimate relationship between God and Moses. The personal address also shows the distinct authority that Moses has, even over that of the High Priest, his brother Aaron. There are few exceptions to Moses giving instruction to Aaron (10:8; Num. 18:1, 8, 20) and these few exceptions accentuate the fact that Moses was the mediator of Godly instruction to Aaron (Milgrom 1012). God commands Moses to tell his brother Aaron “not to come whenever he chooses into the adytum, inside the veil, in front of the kapporet that is upon the Ark, lest he die” (2). Also important to notice is that God told Moses that the smoke from the burning incense would provide a screen between Aaron and God so that Aaron would not have the ability to see God lest he die. The smoke would conceal God's presence on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant.

         The institution of the Day of Atonement occurs in Lev 16:3-28. As Allen Ross explains, "the high priest, clothed in linen garments, made atonement for himself, the priests, tabernacle, and people by offering prescribed sacrifices and by sending away the scapegoat" (315). This summarization of the activities on the Day of Atonement captures the basic gist of what Moses wrote. In verse 3, Aaron is commanded to enter the holy place with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. In verse 4, the high priest's outfit for the Day of Atonement is thoroughly set in place. During the ceremonies, the high priest would put away his typical garment described in Exodus 28 (made of beautiful colored materials, elaborate composition, and golden jewelry) and gird himself with four linen vestments (sash, shirt, shorts, and turban). These linen vestments were representative of how even the high priest was receiving a part of the atonement as he sins along with the people and must become humble before the LORD. Verse 5 mentions the choosing of two young goats for a sin offering and the ram aforementioned in verse 3.

         The start of the offerings for the Day of Atonement occurs in verse 6. Aaron is to cast lots over the two goats to decide which will be sacrificed for the LORD and which will become the scapegoat. Aaron must then offer the goat designated as the sin offering and present the scapegoat alive for atonement before the LORD. Next, Aaron is to present the bull as his personal sin offering and for his household.

         In verse 12, a transition occurs. The offering ceases for a moment and Aaron is commanded to "take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar...and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil." Aaron is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD so that the film over the mercy seat created by the cloud of incense will prevent his death (also seen in v.2). After completing this task, Aaron is to take the blood of the sacrificed bull and sprinkle it seven times on the eastward of the mercy seat. A possible connection to the focus on “eastward” would reference the temple facing eastward. When leaving the temple, the priest was essentially going the opposite direction of God’s presence. Therefore, sprinkling the blood on the eastward would symbolize the nearness of God. The temporary shift halts and offering resumes with the sacrificing of the goat for atonement of the people. The goat's blood is to be sprinkled as the bull's on the mercy seat in the preceding verse.

         After all of these events, atonement for the holy place needs to be made because the tabernacle remains among the uncleanness of the children of Israel. Yet again, the clarification is made that no man other than the high priest is to enter the holy place before the high priest makes atonement for himself, his household, and for all the congregation of Israel. Aaron is then to go out to the altar before the LORD and make atonement for it. For this, he is to take of the blood of the bull and of the goat and put it round about the horns of the altar. In doing this, he must sprinkle the blood seven times to cleanse it from the uncleanness of Israel.

         After all of these, Aaron is to begin the ceremony of the scapegoat. The ceremony of transference begins with the laying on of hands upon the head of the goat. The transference of all the iniquities of the children of Israel is made and placed upon the goat. Then, a "fit" man is to lead the goat into the wilderness. The goat bears every single sin of the children of Israel and is lead to a land uninhabited where the "fit" man is to relinquish the goat.

         After the commencing of these ceremonies, Aaron is to go into the tabernacle and disrobe his linen garments and leave them in the tabernacle. He is then commanded to wash his body with water and put on the customary garments of the high priest. He is to come forth and offer the ram as his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people to atone for his and the people's sins. A high degree of significance is seen in verse 25. The fat of the sin offering is burnt on the altar. The fat is the most prized part of an animal and signifies that God deserves the very best. In verse 26, the "fit" man who released the scapegoat in the wilderness is to bathe himself in water and come back to camp. The remains of the sin offerings were to be taken outside of the camp to be burned. Then, at the very last of the ceremony, the person who burnt the flesh outside of the city was to bathe himself and reenter the city.

         The last six verses in Leviticus 16 deal with the significance of the ritual, the timing of the ritual, and significance of the people/things in the ritual. Beginning with an affirmation in which the Day of Atonement will last forever, the timing is ordained as the tenth day of the seventh month of every year (late September). The writer states that the affliction of souls must take place alongside the absence of work among fellow countrymen and journeying aliens (29,31). Verse 30 presents the ceremony as the Day of Atonement in which the priest makes atonement for the children of Israel so that they may be cleansed before the LORD. In verse 32, the linen garments of the priest are addressed once more to reflect that, even on this day, the priest has atoned for his own sins as well as the sins of the children of Israel. In the second to last verse of this passage, a summarization of the day’s events is submitted: atonement for the holy sanctuary, atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, atonement for the altar, atonement for the priests, and atonement for all the people of the congregation. In the concluding verse of Leviticus 16, a basic summarization of the statute of the Day of Atonement is made to Aaron stating that he make an atonement for the children of Israel for their sins once a year, every year. In the last words of the chapter, Aaron is said to do all that the LORD has commanded of him through Moses.

         Structurally, the passage is fairly simple to break down. Many scholars have indicated a chiastic structure of Leviticus 16. John Hartley creates this pattern (232) for the passage:

         A      narrative and introduction (vv 1-2)

                  B   calendrical agenda (vv 3-10)

                   C       liturgical regulations (vv 11-28)

                  B’      calendrical instructions (vv 29-34a)

         A’     compliance report (v 34b)


This suggestion for chiastic structure has significant basis in that the element C, receives the emphasis and the designations for inverse parallelism have merit.

         Outside of analyzing the text of Leviticus 16, an important area to devote to the study of the Day of Atonement is origins and historical context. Numerous authors and published works devote most of their analysis to analyzing similarities between different ancient sources and the Day of Atonement. Among these purported sources include the Hittite Ritual of Ashella, Leucadian customs, the Akitu of Marduk in Babylon, and countless other customs, rituals, and ANE events.

         Elaboration on these points is due since so many authors provide such devotion to debating sources and origins of the Day of Atonement. Lewis and Westbrook devote the majority of their article to comparison between the Day of Atonement and the Hittite ritual of Ashella in which "the ritual is explicitly designed to transfer the evil (idalu) that is the cause of the plague (henkan) from the soldiers to the rams" (418). The ritual itself involves a woman as substitute for the king and rams as substitutes for the commanders. The woman leads the rams out of the army camp until they find the enemy’s camp and imposes the plague on their enemies. Another comparison made by Westbrook and Lewis is to a Leucadian custom where a scapegoat is chosen and thrown off a cliff, but precautions were taken to ensure his survival (422). Still yet another source, Kent Sparks, compares the Day of Atonement to the Akitu of Marduk in Babylon (632-635). The Akitu of Marduk was for the cleansing of demonic presence in the temple while the Bible's is for atonement of the nation. Also, Mesopotamian kings confessed their innocence, while the Levitical priests confessed guilt. Kent Sparks, as well as others, come to the conclusion that Israel adopted forms of Mesopotamian temple rituals.

         One Israelite-based point of view would be that of Calum Carmichael who utilizes the Book of Jubilees (xxxiv 18, 19) to ascribe the founding of the Day of Atonement to a singular event in Israel's history when Joseph's brothers killed a goat, stained his coat with the blood, and presented it to their father as that of Joseph's murder (Genesis 37). The Book of Jubilees states that "they should make atonement for themselves with a young goat...on the tenth of the seventh month, once a year, for their sins; for they had grieved the affection of their father regarding Joseph his son" (xxxiv 18)". This idea most adequately sets the passage in proper historical context. The narrative of Joseph’s coat seems to be the most enrapturing comparison and may be the closest a scholar has come to revealing the origin (if there is one outside of simply God’s desire to have an established festival) of the Day of Atonement. Both of these pieces of Jewish history have significant parallels that cannot be overlooked and provide for reasonable ascription of the origin of the Day of Atonement to the Joseph’s coat narrative found in Genesis 37.

         Parallels to Leviticus 16 are easily identified with a significant amount of Old Testament passages. Perhaps among the least mentioned of these being the concept of the carrying off of sins. Several passages in the Old Testament deal with this aspect of the Day of Atonement discussed in Leviticus 16:22. The exact same word, translated “bore, carried, etc.” in modern day Bibles is found in the passage of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, specifically in verse 4. The verse reads “surely he has bore our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” Also, the idea of affliction is present as in the latter verses of Leviticus 16. Jesus was prophesied to be our scapegoat and bear our sins just as the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement. Two more passages dealing with the carrying off of sins are found in Micah 7:18-20 and Psalm 103:12. In Micah 7:18-20, God is said to cast the sins of man into the depths of the sea. In Psalm 103:12, God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west. Both of these passages emphasize through their figurative language that God will permanently remove the sins from us. The scapegoat ritual was meant to have the same effect. The sins were never to return whence they were cast.

         Alongside parallels to the Old Testament, textual and thematic parallels can also be made to the New Testament. When Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin council, the priests laid hands on him. Little did they know that the transference of sins was taking place and Jesus took all their sins upon Himself. This laying on of hands references the practice in Leviticus 16 of transferring the priests sins to the scapegoat. One of the most noted parallels found in the New Testament to the Day of Atonement is Romans 12:1. The verse reads, “I beseech you therefore brethren by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” The reference to “living sacrifice” obviously references the scapegoat during the Day of Atonement. The priest was not to kill the goat, but present it alive before the LORD (16:10). This is the only example we have in the Bible in which the sacrifice did not require that the animal be killed, but rather kept alive. In fact, the emphasis seems to be that the animal was kept alive to deliver the Israelite’s sins to a place of no return.

Another significant parallel to the New Testament is found in Hebrews 13:12. The passage tells us that the crucifixion of Christ occurred outside of the city. The reference to outside of the city references the scapegoat taking the sins of the Israelites outside of the city. We are to leave the city and go to Christ, which symbolically indicates the need to forsake the world we live in. We are to leave all things behind and follow Christ like the early disciples in their commission. To further the idea of this parallel, Allen Ross indicates that the tearing of the veil in the temple subsequent to Jesus’ death, opened the way to the holy of holies (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45) for Christians (323).

         We as Christians today can derive many significant applications from this passage. For instance, the grave detail of this event may seem overly drawn out, but there may be theological and spiritual implications that can be taken from the excessive detail God requires. For one thing, the journey of a Christian is never promised to be an easy one; in fact, the opposite is true. In Matthew 10:22, we are told that we will “be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endures to the end shall be saved.” The life of a Christian is going to be demanding and arduous to the last detail. Also, the distinct parallel between Romans 12:1 and Leviticus 16:10 shows living sacrifice. We as Christians are to be living sacrifices to one another. We are also to be living sacrifices for God.

         Throughout the book of Psalms we see that the life of men will sometimes be filled with unresolved conflicts and constant torture. While Jesus taught in the short ministry that He had, He promised that the way would be difficult and we may be required to forsake even our closest family (Matthew 19:29), yet, He still pushes us to aspire for perfection (Matthew 5:48). The ideal of perfection is exactly that, an ideal. Humans will never reach perfection, yet we still strive for it in many areas of our lives. The perfect detail throughout the Bible, especially in passages like Leviticus 16, motivate us to aspire for that perfect example that God has set before us. We as Christians must present ourselves holy and blameless before the LORD and the only way of doing that is by following His precepts to the tee or else we will incur the second death, separation from God Almighty.

         As R.K. Harrison astutely acknowledges, “for the Christian, the solemn day looked forward to the time when a representative human being would bear the sins of the world (Is. 53:6) as the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29)” (176). Christ was our one and only mediator, our ultimate high priest, and our scapegoat. He provided what the sacrifices of the old covenant could not (Heb. 10:4) and reconciled us forever. He provided the ultimate sacrifice of death on the cross for all of us taking on an obedience and humility that not one other person could ever do (Phil. 2:8).


Works Cited

Carmichael, Calum M. "The Origin of the Scapegoat Ritual." Vetus testamentum 50.2 (2000): 167-182.

Harrison, R.K. Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980.

Hartley, John E. "Leviticus." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: World Books, 1992.

Milgrom, Jacob. "Leviticus 1-16." The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Ross, Allen P. Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Sparks, Kent. "Enūma elish and priestly mimesis: elite emulation in nascent Judaism." Journal of Biblical Literature 126.4 (2007): 625-648.

Wenham, Gordon J. "The Book of Leviticus." The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.

Westbrook, Raymond, and Theodore J. Lewis. "Who led the scapegoat in Leviticus 16:21?" Journal of Biblical Literature 127.3 (2008): 417-422.