The Ritualism of the Great Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur
Biblical Research Monthly — by Dr. David L. Cooper
Of all the offerings that were brought by the children of Israel, those of the great Day of Atonement stand out most conspicuously. This was the sin offering par excellence of the Mosaic system. Of all days in the year the Day of Atonement is most important. It occurs on the tenth day of the seventh month.
The ritual of this day was most impressive and meaningful. The ceremonies are not to be confused with the offerings about which we have already been studying. They refer to the individual who was guilty of sin or who was grateful for blessings and favors. In contrast with these personal offerings, let us remember, were those of the Day of Atonement which have a national aspect. This thought cannot be emphasized too strongly. Unless one realizes this fact, he cannot see clearly the full import of this ritualism and understand its prophetic significance. In order to grasp the lesson, let us follow this ritual most carefully as set forth in Leviticus, chapter 16.
On this day the high priest was the only one who officiated in the service. On other feast days and special occasions he was arrayed in his garments of beauty and holiness. Not so at this time. On the contrary, he bathed his flesh and put on the holy linen clothes and wore a linen mitre. His laying aside the garments of glory and taking the humble clothing of linen are emphasized to such an extent that there must be some symbolic, prophetic significance indicated (see Exodus, chapter 28, for a description of the priest's garments). The meaning of this fact we shall learn later in the investigation.
Being thus attired, the high priest brought a young bullock for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering to make atonement for himself and for his house (Leviticus 16:3-6). He also received at the hands of the congregation of the children of Israel two he-goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering (vs. 5).
Upon receiving the goats, the high priest “set them before Jehovah at the door of the tent of meeting” (vs. 7). He then cast lots for them; “one lot for Jehovah, and the other lot for Azazel” (vs. 8). Thereupon he presented the goat “upon which the lot fell for Jehovah” to sacrifice as a sin offering; but the goat “on which the lot fell for Azazel,” he “ set alive before Jehovah, to make atonement for [over is the marginal reading, which is to be preferred] him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness” (vss. 9, 10).
After casting lots for the goats, the high priest offered the bullock for a sin offering, which was to make atonement for himself and for his house. This done, taking his censer, and filling it with coals from off the golden altar, which was “before Jehovah,” he poured incense into his censer and upon the golden altar in order that the smoke rising from it might form a cloud over the mercy seat. Then with the burning incense he entered the most holy place where he sprinkled the blood of the bullock with his finger upon and before the mercy seat seven times. This service being completed, he came forth from the sanctuary.
Thereupon he killed the goat of the sin offering that was for the people. With its blood he also sprinkled the mercy seat and that which was before it to make atonement for the holy place (vs. 16), for the tent of meeting (vs. 16), and for the altar (vs. 18). By this ceremony the sanctuary was cleansed and hallowed “from the uncleanness of the children of Israel” (vs. 19). When he had thus accomplished this part of the service, he returned to the place at the altar of burnt offerings where the second goat stood that was “alive before Jehovah,” and that was to be sent away to Azazel into the wilderness. The account of this part of the service is set forth in the following language:
And when he hath made an end of atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, he shall present the live goat: 21 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, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a man that is in readiness into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a solitary land and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:20-22)
Let us note the fact that the high priest laid his hands upon the head of the live goat and confessed over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel and all their transgressions, even all their sins, in order that “the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a solitary land.” The language is very explicit — all the iniquities, all the transgressions. There is no need of our taking this language except at its face value. Thus there was included in these expressions both the known and the unknown sins of the entire nation that afflicted their souls (vs. 29). Those who did not in genuine repentance and in humiliation for their sins afflict their souls did not enjoy the forgiveness of their sins, but were to be cut off from the commonwealth of Israel according to-Leviticus 23:29: Behold “For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day; he shall be cut off from his people.”
The live goat upon whose head the high priest laid his hands and confessed all the iniquities and transgressions of Israel was then led forth by someone appointed for that special duty into the wilderness of Azazel. Who was Azazel? What is the meaning of this name? The word has been the occasion of much speculation. To determine its significance and the import of this part of the ceremony is one of the most difficult tasks in connection with this portion of the chapter. In order to approach it properly, let us note the fact that these two goats constituted “a sin-offering” (vs. 5). The two animals formed the one sin offering. One was slain and its blood sprinkled in the sanctuary according to instructions; the other, after the sins of Israel, had symbolically been transferred to it, was led away into the wilderness to Azazel. The ceremony of the slaying of the one goat and the leading away of the second with the sins of the people thereupon into the wilderness constituted one act; namely, the removal of the sins of the children of Israel — temporarily of course as we shall see.
As to the significance of the word, Azazel, lexicographers are agreed that it indicates removal or entire removal, as is shown in the marginal reading of the Revised Version. Accepting this as its fundamental idea, certain outstanding expositors give the following explanation of this portion of the ritual. By the slaying of the goat upon whom the lot for Jehovah fell and by the sprinkling of its blood upon and before the mercy seat, expiation for the sins of all Israel was accomplished. By the laying on of the hands of the high priest on the goat upon which the lot for Azazel had fallen, and by the leading of this same goat into the wilderness, the complete removal of the sins of the nation from the presence of God and from His people was symbolically set forth. Thus by these two parts of the ceremony the complete removal of the sins and the reconciliation of Israel to God for that year was pictured. S. H. Kellogg has set forth this explanation in the following quotation:
“The goat 'for removal' bears away all the iniquities of Israel, which are symbolically laid upon him, into a solitary land; that is, they are taken wholly away from the presence of God and from the camp of His people. Thus, as the spilling and the sprinkling of the blood of the first goat visibly set forth the means of reconciliation with God, through the substitutive offering of an innocent victim, so the sending away of the second goat, laden with those sins, the expiation of which had been signified by the sacrifice of the first, no less vividly set forth the effect of that sacrifice, in the complete removal of those expiated sins from the holy presence of Jehovah. That this effect of the atonement should have been adequately represented by the first slain victim was impossible; hence the necessity for the second goat, ideally identified with the other, as jointly constituting with it one sin offering, whose special use it should be to represent the blessed effect of atonement. The truth symbolized, as the goat thus bore away the sins of Israel, is expressed in those glad words (Psalm 103:12) 'as far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us'; or, under another usage, by Micah (7:19), 'thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.' ”
As stated above, this explanation is held by many reputable sane commentators and is worthy of one's utmost consideration. There is however one great difficulty standing in the way of our accepting it as final. It is this: According to verse 8, lots were cast upon the two goats — “one for Jehovah, and the other lot for Azazel.” Since Jehovah is a person, and since Azazel is set over against Him, one naturally sees in this name the possibility of a person.
In view of this fact some expositors have endeavored to explain it upon the basis of heathenism, claiming that Israel here sent the scapegoat to propitiate some demon that was supposed to be inhabiting the desert. This explanation, however, is untenable, especially so in view of Leviticus 17:7-9:
And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the he-goats, after which they play the harlot. This shall be a statute forever unto them throughout their generations. And thou shalt say unto them, Whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that offereth a burnt-offering or sacrifice, and bringeth it not unto the door of the tent of meeting, to sacrifice it unto Jehovah; that man shall be cut off from his people.”
The sacred writer in Psalm 106 narrates God's dealings with Israel. In doing so, he speaks of certain ones who mingled with the nations, served their idols, and consequently worshiped demons. This conduct was condemned by the psalmist. This interpretation therefore is not worthy of consideration.
Another explanation which is more satisfying and more reasonable, I shall now present for consideration. There is an evil spirit in the world who is known as the great adversary of both God and man — Satan (concerning him we studied in Chapter IX of What Men Must Believe). He is one of the leading actors in the drama of the Book of Job. He appears very prominently in chapters 1 and 2. Here we see him appearing among the sons of God in the presence of the Almighty in heaven. He can do nothing against any of the servants of God without first obtaining permission from the Almighty. Again, we see him represented under the symbolism of behemoth and leviathan in the closing chapters of the Book of Job. We read of this same sinister spirit in Zechariah 3:1-5. An examination of this scripture shows that Israel as a nation is represented by Joshua the high priest who stands before the Angel of Jehovah. Satan is standing, however, at the right hand of Joshua — occupying the place of a defense attorney, whereas in truth he is endeavoring to prosecute and condemn Joshua before Jehovah. The Lord most sternly rebukes him, asserting that He has chosen Jerusalem and that Joshua, representing Israel, is as a brand plucked out of the fire. Instead of rejecting Joshua, the Lord commands those standing near to remove his filthy garments, to replace them with rich apparel, and to put a clean mitre upon his head, the symbolic significance of which acts is expressed in the following words, which He addresses to Joshua: “Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with rich apparel” (Zechariah 3:4). It is quite evident from a study of Zechariah 3:1-5 that the lord symbolically sets forth the time when Israel will be cleansed, forgiven, and reinstated into the favor of her God.
In the ritual of the Day of Atonement Azazel represented Satan, Israel's inveterate enemy. The sin offering for the nation, let us keep in mind, consisted of two goats — yet one “sin-offering” — a single transaction, having two aspects which centered around the two goats. The blood of the slain goat made atonement for sin. The scapegoat — laden with the same sins, transferred to it symbolically by the laying on of hands of the high priest and his confession of all sins of the nation over it — went forth to Azazel into the wilderness, revealing the effect of the atonement that had been made by the blood of the slain goat. By the scapegoat's going to Azazel, announcement was made to Satan that Israel's sins, which were many, had been removed and that atonement had been made for them. By this act the announcement was made to the evil one that his power over and claim upon Israel have been broken, and that she now stands approved in the sight of her God and is restored to fellowship with Him. Of course we must ever bear in mind that the sins of the nation were rolled forward by the sin offering of the Day of Atonement for one year only. This ritual had to be observed annually. In this way the sins of the people were for the ensuing year removed typically.
Thus death and life are both set forth symbolically in connection with the removal of Israel's sin nationally. The full force of these momentous and weighty facts will come to us in the light which is thrown upon it from the New Testament records.
Ed. Note: For a full discussion of the subject of the Atonement, see Chapter XII in Dr. Cooper's book, What Men Must Believe. This article is an extract from that chapter.