Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Levitical Interlude #2: Day of Atonement

There are individual sins and there are corporate sins. A woman who has an abortion commits the former; a nation that enshrines her right to do so in its law commits the latter. I leave it to you to weigh which is the greater offense.

From Sinai onward, upon becoming conscious of having personally violated God’s laws, individual Israelites could bring their offerings to the tabernacle or temple all year round to have their transgressions covered over. But Israel’s corporate transgressions also needed a way of being covered over, being arguably more offensive to God than sins any lone Israelite might commit, and therefore more likely to be the source of an outbreak of divine wrath against the entire nation.

The Book of Law

I pointed out in a post last week that the book of Leviticus is unique among the earlier Old Testament writings in that it preserves almost nothing but pure law. Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are historical books with laws in them. Leviticus is a law book with three brief historical interludes each of which has to do with some sort of judgment.

When a writer deviates, however briefly, from the main thrust of what he is doing in a particular work, it is generally because the digression is necessary, maybe even highly significant. Let me suggest that of the three historical interludes in Leviticus, the chapter devoted to the first Day of Atonement is pivotal. Observers of the Hebrew structure of Leviticus almost invariably agree chapter 16 is right at its heart. This being the case, I’m going to start with the second historical interlude in Leviticus first.

The Day of Atonement is all about divine judgment of corporate sin.

Leviticus 16: The Day of Atonement

A Historical Interlude

If you have read chapter 16, you may wonder why I am referring to it as a historical interlude at all. Like all the other sections of the book concerned with various laws, it begins with “The Lord spoke to Moses.” Like all the other legal sections of the book, it continues with a series of instructions made up of both Dos and Don’ts. At first glance, it looks like just another set of legal provisions in a long series.

What makes chapter 16 historical are its first and last lines. The first line notes that these instructions were given “after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died”, connecting it directly to the first historical interlude in Leviticus (8:1 through 10:20). The last line of the chapter notes, “And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.” Unlike the other feasts of YHWH, God’s instructions concerning the Day of Atonement were not just documented for future reference but also observed. That’s history.

The Mechanics

All sin requires judgment. In the Old Testament, in order that the people of God not be destroyed because of their repeated failures to meet God’s standards of behavior, animals served as their proxies in judgment as well as in other capacities. I will not get into the details of the Day of Atonement ritual too deeply, but four sacrifices were offered in two phases:

  1. Sin offerings: a bull for the priesthood and a goat for the congregation.
  2. Burnt offerings: a ram for the priesthood and a ram for the congregation.

The bull was necessary because a sinning priesthood could not possibly make intercession for a sinful people. As the earthly representatives of God’s people, the sins of the priesthood must first be dealt with. (We will get into this issue more in a coming post on the Nadab and Abihu historical interlude.) This is never an problem with the priesthood of Christ. Unlike the Israelite ritual of annual reminder, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

A very brief summary of the ritual follows. For the sin offering portion of the ceremony, the priest wore white linen garments instead of his usual priestly attire. Jewish tradition has it these robes were never worn at any other time.

First, the priest would offer a bull for the sins of priest and priesthood. Next, two goats were brought by the congregation for their sin offering, though only one was offered. The victim was chosen by the casting of a lot. The goat on which the lot for the Lord fell would be offered in sacrifice. The live goat would then stand before the priest, who would lay his hands on its head and confess over it the sins of the nation, after which this “scapegoat” would be led out into the wilderness to freedom, symbolically carrying them away. Until next year, that is.

After this, the high priest, his freedom to minister safely now established by the sin offering on his behalf, changed into his regular attire and offered the two rams as burnt offerings.

By this process atonement was made for the priest and his household (16:6), for the holy place (16:16), for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for all the people of Israel (16:33).

The Work of Christ Anticipated

Now, all the sacrifices and all the feasts speak of Christ and his work in one aspect or another. In that sense there is nothing unique about the Day of Atonement. But the particular aspect of Christ’s work illustrated for us in Leviticus 16 is well brought out in John Ritchie’s comparison of the Passover to the Day of Atonement:

“[At Passover], the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the lintel and side-posts of the door, to avert the stroke of judgment on Israel’s first-born sons. Here the blood is carried within the veil and put on the mercy-seat. In the former case it is the sacrifice of Christ, appropriated by faith, as that which alone can deliver the sinner from righteous wrath, but in this ordinance, it is the blood of atonement presented Godward as that by which His throne is established in righteousness, His claims fully met, the believer permitted to draw near in spirit now to commune with God, and the ground on which he will enter the presence of God in person by and by.”

That the Day of Atonement is primarily concerned with the Godward aspect of Christ’s work is confirmed by fact that while it is listed among the seven feasts of YHWH in chapter 23, it was actually a fast rather than a feast. On the Day of Atonement, all the food was for God. The sacrifices were entirely consumed by fire, even the priest’s normal portion of the burnt offering. The believer was not without indirect benefits that flowed from this, of course, but these arose out of God’s anticipation of complete satisfaction with the perfect sacrifice of his Son in a future day. On the Day of Atonement, he was graciously willing to accept that sacrifice in picture only.

An Illustration

The Day of Atonement was concerned with sin corporately rather than individually, which is in some ways the bigger issue. The death of Christ was necessary to deal with my individual sins, which are not of great concern to the human race generally, but are of great concern to me, especially if I were required to bear their eternal consequences. But the sacrifice of the Son also dealt with the much more important matter of the sin question in general.

Let me illustrate the difference this way. Suppose I want to travel to North Korea. As a Canadian citizen, two issues must be settled. First, there is the question of whether I am fit to travel anywhere at all. I had a Christian friend with a criminal past who was at one point simply not allowed to cross the border because of his history. His criminal record would have prevented him from access to North Korea or anywhere else. But above and beyond the personal level, there is a second, corporate question: Does Canada have an established relationship with North Korea in the first place? There have been times (such as briefly in 2010) when diplomatic relations between the two countries were suspended. No Canadian was welcome in North Korea. No matter how wonderful I might be personally, North Korea was uninterested in dealing with me simply because I was one of a group of people temporarily considered undesirable.

Sin and Sins

The Day of Atonement anticipates Christ’s work at the level of establishing access into the presence of God for fallen humanity, a feat that could only be accomplished by a fully legitimate member of the human race. Were than not done, even a demonstrable personal righteousness would be of no use to me. Nothing I could ever do would get me into God’s presence unless a way in there for mankind had been opened up in the first place.

This is a subject touched on in Hebrews 10, which deals not just with Christ’s provision concerning individual sins, but also with the spiritual fulfillment of the corporate issues symbolized in the Day of Atonement rituals. This is evident where it speaks of the inadequacy of “the blood of bulls and goats” to do anything more than stand as a reminder of sin. Where are the lambs or pigeons? They are relevant to the temporary covering of sins for individuals, but not to the sin of the nation corporately. The writer also refers to “sacrifices offered every year” and “a reminder of sins every year”, which clearly indicates it is the Day of Atonement rituals he has in mind.

The Symbolism

It is impossible to fully unpack all the symbolism in the Day of Atonement ritual. Few expositors even try. If we simply say “Christ”, we have pretty much covered it, but each part of the ritual speaks of our Lord from a different angle. Let me take my best crack at a few of the most obvious symbols, and I’m sure others will differ here and there.

The sin offerings, bull and goat, are Christ dealing with the righteous wrath of God which would otherwise break out against fallen man. The burnt offerings are Christ enabling cleansed sinners to enter into the presence of God to worship and commune with him. The sprinkled blood is a reminder of Christ’s death in its aspect of covering over not just the sins of the people and the priesthood but also negating their contaminating effect on the worship and service of God. The scapegoat is Christ bearing away the sins of his people where they will be “remembered no more”. (I like to think there is a nod there to both his death and resurrection in that one goat died and one lived.)

The high priest also symbolizes Christ, of course. The white linen garments remind us only Christ’s righteousness could ever satisfy God. The different garments for the sin offering and burnt offering portions of the ritual distinguish between Christ’s once-for-all offering for sin and his ongoing ministry on behalf of those who have become part of God’s family.

They remind us the sin question is forever dealt with, but we still need the regular washing of the Word.

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