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The Day of Atonement - Leviticus 16

Introduction The Day of Atonement is considered the most sacred day of the Hebrew festal year. It occurs in the fall of the year on the 10th day of the seventh month (Tishri). A reminder of it was given on the first day of the seventh month, the Feast of Trumpets. The people were to examine themselves and confess and forsake their sins. Really, it was a time of judgment with the Day of Atonement being the closing of judgment or what is sometimes termed the close of probation.

What is atonement? It's not a word we use often. The word "atonement" can be broken down into "at - one - ment." The suffix "-ment" indicates a condition or state of being. Examples would be: astonishment, bereavement, contentment, disappointment, encouragement and many others. The word contentment refers to the state of being content. So the word atonement describes a condition of being at one. For instance, when two estranged parties have made up with the penalty of the guilty party being paid, atonement has happened.

There have been modern references to this day. If you remember, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War fought from Oct. 6-25, 1973, between Israel and its neighbors, began on the this day when a coalition of Arab countries launched a joint surprise attack. The war became known as the Yom Kippur War or, as some called it, "The War of the Day of Judgment."

Note that, in this chapter, the KJV uses "holy place" for what is most commonly called the "most holy place" (or the second room of the sanctuary accessed by going through the first room). The word "place" is supplied, except in v 24 where "holy" is translated from a different word than in the other cases. So, in this chapter (except for verse 24), when reference is made to the "holy place" it is referring to the "most holy place" or the second room of the sanctuary.

The chapter uses the term "tabernacle of the congregation" to refer to the holy place; the first room of the sanctuary. To avoid confusion in the commentary on this page for Leviticus 16, I will use "first room" and "second room" to refer to "the holy place" and "the most holy place" respectively.

KJV use in
Leviticus 16
biblical use
on this page
holy place most holy place
(holy of holies)
second room
tabernacle of
the congregation
holy place first room

To properly follow what is being described here we need to understand the basic layout of the sanctuary. It is shown in the diagram below (without the fence around the courtyard).

The Sanctuary

Cleansing the Sanctuary

"And the LORD spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the LORD, and died; 2 And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat." (Lev 16:1-2)

This verse shows that it is the second room being referred to as it says "within the vail before the mercy seat" the mercy seat, of course, being the cover of the Ark of the Covenant which was in the second room.

The directive to "come not at all times" is a way of saying Aaron was not to enter the second room whenever he wished but only at the appropriate times as God directed.

The mercy seat is symbolic of Christ. Note the following verses:

"Whom [Christ Jesus, v24] God hath set forth to be a propitiation (G2435) through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;" (Rom 3:25)
"And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat (G2435); of which we cannot now speak particularly." (Heb 9:5)

The word "propitiation" in Romans 3:25 is from the same original word that in Hebrews 9:5 is translated as "mercyseat." Essentially, Jesus stands between us and the law protecting us from its demand of death for the sinner by paying that penalty Himself.

"Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bullock for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: these are holy garments; therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on." (Lev 16:3-4)

Aaron was to come into the second room of the sanctuary, the presence of God with a sin offering. Jesus Himself entered the presence of God with blood - His own - as a sacrifice for sin and did not require the blood of an animal as a sin offering.

"Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us." (Heb 9:12)

There is no further mention of the ram for the burnt offering in this chapter but it was common to offer a burnt offering in connection with sin offerings, for example:

"And Moses said unto Aaron, Go unto the altar, and offer thy sin offering, and thy burnt offering, and make an atonement for thyself, and for the people: and offer the offering of the people, and make an atonement for them; as the LORD commanded." (Lev 9:7)

The burnt offering symbolized complete consecration as the offering was totally consumed on the altar.

The Linen Garments

The linen garments were much simpler than the ornate garments that the high priests normally wore for temple services. In the golden garments, the high priest represented Christ to the people. In the white, linen garments he represented Christ as mediator for the people before God. The white represented the spotless character that all need to stand in the presence of God.

High Priest's Linen Garments
High Priest's Ornate Garments
"And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. 6 And Aaron shall offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house. 7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD'S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. 10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness." (Lev 16:5-10)

The location described in verse 6 as "before the Lord" would be (at least in this case) the area of the altar of burnt offering since that is where the animals were killed. The verses to this point in the chapter constitute basically a summary or prologue of what offerings are required and then it goes into more detail again in the following verses so let's just continue on.

"And Aaron shall bring the bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make an atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin offering which is for himself:" (Lev 16:11)

The first offering (mentioned in verse 3) was a sin offering for himself, then there were other offerings. Notice that, in Christ's case, there was only one offering:

"For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." (Heb 10:14)

Christ did not bring a sin offering for Himself. He who was without sin would never have brought a sacrificial offering except when He presented Himself as an offering and that was for the sins of others.

"And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the LORD, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not:" (Lev 16:12-13)

Note that the high priest only put the incense on the fire after going within the vail. This a clue as to which vail was referred to. There was no need for smoke from the burning incense while he was still in the courtyard. Aaron would have taken the coals and the incense from the courtyard past the first vail into the first room of the sanctuary. Then he would have put the incense on the fire in the censer to make smoke to hide the mercy seat before he went within the second vail to the second room.

"And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times." (Lev 16:14)

The high priest would then be standing in the second room and facing the east - the direction he came in from. It seems that the ark of the covenant was on the east side of the second room, close to the vail or at least that the high priest was to enter the second room, go beyond the ark and turn to face the direction he came in from.

The King James translation makes it sound as though he was to sprinkle the blood with his finger towards the east so that it landed on the mercy sea. He was also directed, as he stood before the ark, to do this seven times.

It can also be understood that the high priest sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat once and then on the ground before it seven times - and perhaps in other ways.

One could contemplate the question "What would happen if blood was to land on the law of God? on the tables of stone?" Of course, in thinking of that, we need to remember that the blood did not because the law was covered by the mercy seat. We can be thankful for that.

This resulted in the priest being cleansed from his sin so that he could then proceed, as a fit representative of the Messiah, to mediate on behalf of others.

Atonement for the People

"Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat:" (Lev 16:15)

Next, he sacrificed the blood of the goat as a sin offering for the people. This was the goat chosen by lot "for the Lord" from the two selected goats. This goat represented the Messiah Who was to come.

Sin offerings made throughout the year, while they brought forgiveness to the guilty person bringing the offering, in a sense, made a record of sins, by way of the blood, in the sanctuary thus defiling it (Otherwise why would it need cleansing?). The blood of this goat cleansed the record of sin (verse 19) so that the mercy seat and the second room containing it was then clean.

Atonement for the Most Holy Place

"And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness." (Lev 16:16)

The "holy place" (second room) needed atonement "because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel." There was no inherent evil or sin in the sanctuary or altar - they were not responsible. It was the record of the sins of the people recorded there that caused the defilement.

This verse would better read "Thus, shall he make an atonement ..." It is not going on to describe a separate action. It is saying that by doing this; by applying the blood of the Lord's goat what it is applied to becomes clean. Physically, what has happened is blood has been splattered on a surface that has previously had blood on it. It wouldn't look any cleaner. There is no magic in the blood. It is the merits of the blood that count. The blood pointed to and represented a perfect sacrifice to come.

Atonement for the Holy Place

Then the high priest made atonement for the first room, referred to here as "the tabernacle of the congregation." He would did it by applying blood as described in Exodus:

"And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it (the altar of incense) once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the LORD." (Exo 30:10)
"And there shall be no man in the tabernacle of the congregation when he goeth in to make an atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel." (Lev 16:17)

This command was given because if someone was in the first room they might have seen within the second room when the high priest went in and out through the vail.

"And he shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about." (Lev 16:18)

After he made atonement first for the second room and then for the first room, the high priest went out from the second room to the courtyard where the altar of burnt offering was. He then made atonement for this area as well by putting some of the same blood upon the horns of the altar.

Notice that atonement or cleaning was required for anywhere the record of sins had previously been made through application of blood. And when the blood of the Lord's goat was applied to the article of furniture in each portion of the sanctuary that had previously been defiled by blood the whole area was considered to be cleansed.

Notice also that atonement was made even for the altar of burnt offering thus cleansing the courtyard. While the court was left out and not judged when the holy and most holy places were (Rev 11:1-2), atonement was still made for it. While not everyone is saved since sinners must accept salvation, atonement was still made for them.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

The "world" includes everyone even those who, by their own decision, will finally be lost.

"And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel." (Lev 16:19)

The Scapegoat

"And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat:" (Lev 16:20)

When does he deal with the live goat? Only after he has made an end of reconciliation. The live goat has no part in this; no part in atonement for sin.

"And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:" (Lev 16:21)

In this situation, to "lay ... hands upon" has the meaning of "to lean upon" or "to put weight upon" as in a weight or burden of sin. The instructions don't say that the one leading the goat into the wilderness was to be a priest or even a Levite but only that he be a "fit man."

"And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness." (Lev 16:22)

Does this goat bear sins? Yes - the Word says that it does - but not for atonement or reconciliation. The atonement has already happened. The goat represents Satan who, in the end, bears his own sins and the punishment for them.

"His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate." (Psa 7:16)

"Pate" refers to the crown of the head. This goat was referred to as "Azazel." The meaning of this word is obscure, although the root word in the Hebrew means "far removed." With the "el" ending, it possibly meant "far removed from God" or removed from "el;" el being the short form of "Elohim" (God) just as "Yah" is the short form of "Yahweh".

Azazel being far removed from God is a picture of the 1000 years where Satan will be banished to this earth which will be "a land not inhabited" after the saved are taken to heaven and the lost are destroyed by the brightness of the Second Coming.

The parallel construction in verse 7 suggests that it is meant as a personal pronoun:

one lot for the LORD, and
the other lot for the scapegoat (Azazel)

It is important to emphasize that the blood of the scapegoat was not shed and it is only the shedding of blood that cleanses (purges) from sin.

"And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission." (Be 9:22

Here is a comparison between the two goats between which the lots were cast:

The Lord's Goat
The Scapegoat
slain (v15) not slain (v22)
blood sprinkled (v15) blood not shed (v22)
the blood cleansed (v15, 16) contact caused contamination (v26)

The book of Enoch describes Azazel as the one who "hath taught all unrighteousness on earth" (Enoch 9:6). Also "the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin." (Enoch 10:8)

"And Aaron shall come into the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall put off the linen garments, which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there: And he shall wash his flesh with water in the holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering, and the burnt offering of the people, and make an atonement for himself, and for the people." (Lev 16:23-24)

Verse 24 is the only verse in chapter 16 in which the word "place" in the phrase "holy place" is not supplied. It reads "holy (H6918) place (H4725)" and is, in this case, referring to the first room of the sanctuary. All other uses of "holy place have the word "place" supplied by the translators and are referring to the most holy place or what we are calling here the second room of the sanctuary.

After completing the special once-a-year work of the Day of Atonement the high priest would offer the burnt offering for the usual daily evening sacrifice and thus begin the cycle over again for another year.

The Sin Offering

"And the fat of the sin offering shall he burn upon the altar." (Lev 16:25)

This was the fat from the sin offerings offered earlier in the day.

"And he that let go the goat for the scapegoat shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward come into the camp. And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh, and their dung." (Lev 16:26-27)

One carries a bullock and a goat? The word "one" is supplied. Good thing. The word is likely supplied because of the "he" in verse 28. But the "he" may have been the priest in charge and he may have had a number of Levites as assistants. Carrying a bullock and a goat to a place outside the camp would not be a one-man job. This foreshadows where Jesus died, also outside of the camp.

"For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate." (Heb 13:11-12)
"And he that burneth them shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp." (Lev 16:28)

This chore, of course, involved contact with a dead animal.

"And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you:" (Lev 16:29)

The Day of Atonement occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month of Tishri. The Feast of Trumpets on which trumpets were blown to signify judgment happened on the first day of the month of Tishri. The days between are often referred to as the "Days of Awe."

During these days, it was appropriate to "afflict your souls" not meaning anything like to do penance but rather to humble oneself and especially to examine one's life record and confess and forsake sin and, if needed, to make things right with others. Anyone who wants to be right with God would be well to do this.

"For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD." (Lev 16:30)

We are given promises regarding our sins and their record:

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)

It is not wise to try to cover or ignore them:

"He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy." (Pro 28:13)

See my study on forgiveness that shows how very ready God is to forgive our sins.

"It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever." (Lev 16:31)

The Day of Atonement could be on any day of the week as it was the tenth day of the month. This was a statute that was to be forever as long - as there was sin to be dealt with and atoned for

"And the priest, whom he shall anoint, and whom he shall consecrate to minister in the priest's office in his father's stead, shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen clothes, even the holy garments: 33 And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation. 34 And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year. And he did as the LORD commanded Moses." (Lev 16:32-34)

This is a an epilogue to the chapter. The "he" in verse 32 is God. Later in the verse, "he" consecrates the priest to minister. The priest does not consecrate himself. "His father" would be referring to Aaron, the high priest at the time.

"And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying, Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor: And strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there." (Num 20:23-26)

Note these verses pointing out the role of blood in the atonement process:

"And almost all things are by the law purged [cleansed] with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these." (Heb 9:22-23)
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul." (Lev 17:11)

It's not just the shedding of some blood - a transfusion or a little blood letting wouldn't be sufficient - death was required for atonement to happen.

"And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions [that were] under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance." (Heb 9:15)

Summary Leviticus chapter 16 describing the Day of Atonement is a very important chapter in the Bible. And the day of Atonement is a very important concept. The whole goal of the plan of salvation is atonement - to return us to the relationship with God that He intended for us to have in the first place.

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The Greek has multiple words for forgiveness? God forgives (charizomai) whether we ask or not. Receiving forgiveness (apheimi) is by our choice.
God always forgives!


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