Leviticus 1–15 presents a series of events that recall mankind’s original creation and fall. The tabernacle and its worship were established like a new Eden with Aaron and his sons placed within to serve and keep 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 came out from the Lord’s presence to devour them.
Nadab and Abihu’s judgment represented a crisis for the tabernacle order—an event akin to a new fall. The five chapters that follow remind us of the Lord’s judgment in Genesis 3. Leviticus 11 marks out animals we might compare to the serpent as unclean for human consumption. Then, much as the judgment on the woman followed the serpent’s judgment in Genesis 3, Israel is given laws concerning childbirth in Leviticus 12. Chapters 13–15 treat skin conditions and bodily discharges, highlighting the corrupt character of human flesh and how its unnatural exposure through disease or discharges can be defiling.
At the beginning of Leviticus 16, we find a reminder of Nadab’s and Abihu’s deaths and the problem they pose for Israel. These two show what happens when corrupt human flesh comes face-to-face with God’s burning holiness. If the Lord is to live amid his people, there must be some means for dealing with human corruption, defilement, and trespasses. That measure—the Day of Atonement—is what Leviticus introduces at this pivotal juncture.
Yom Kippur, commonly translated as the Day of Atonement, was an appointed fast that occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month. Of all the days marked out in Leviticus 23, this was the high point. On the Day of Atonement, the entire sacrificial system was rebooted. After a year of accumulating sin and impurity, symbolically polluting the system and its ministers, the Day of Atonement cleanses and reestablishes the whole system.
If the Lord is to live amid his people, there must be some means for dealing with human corruption, defilement, and trespasses.
The Day of Atonement was the only day when a priest could enter the Most Holy Place (or the Holy of Holies), the inner room of the tabernacle or temple that 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 both purification offerings—a bull for the high priest and the goat on which the lot had fallen for the people.
While the flesh of 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 realm of formlessness, demons, and death. Before it was sent out, the high priest confessed the iniquities and transgressions of Israel over it. The goat would bear the sins of Israel into the wilderness’s vast emptiness.
We may be tempted to regard these rituals as mechanistic, as if they were fleshly ceremonies and indifferent to the heart. This would miss the emphasis in Leviticus 23:26–33. This passage holds forth the Day of Atonement’s ceremonies as a symbolic performance of the Lord’s gracious purification of his sinful people, with the people’s participation (by fasting and affliction of themselves) showing their willing entrance into this gracious cleansing, a sort of enacted prayer that receives the forgiveness God graciously gives.
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 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. Its cleansing on the Day of Atonement ensured the Lord’s wrath would not break out against his people and marked the climax of the sacrificial system’s graciously given process of ascent to the Lord and enjoyment of communion with him.
We may be tempted to regard the rituals as mechanistic, as if they were fleshly ceremonies and indifferent to the heart. This would miss the emphasis in Leviticus.
Yet the fullness of peace and communion couldn’t be experienced through the old system. According to the author of Hebrews, the tabernacle and temple were reality-filled types of heavenly archetypes. Only one person on only one day of the year was able to enter the Most Holy Place. This means the “way into the holy places [was] not yet opened” (Heb. 9:8). With the advent of Christ, however, the way through the veil into the Most Holy Place has been opened (Heb. 9:11–12).
Understood 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 Christ’s future act.
When God’s dwelling with his people in the new Eden of the tabernacle was threatened by human trespass and corruption, he provided a Day of Atonement when communion might be graciously preserved through sacrifice. Yet, as Hebrews makes clear, the blood of bulls and goats does not take away sins. Christ is the One whose sacrifice truly cleanses the heavenly holy places, and he’s the One who, like the scapegoat, utterly removes and bears away our sins.