The study of the Day of Atonement has led many scholars to believe that it was a day more important than any other in the Old Testament. Tidball mentions that the proceedings of this day, “… were unique, their effect was unequalled and their significance was unrivalled” (Tidball 68). So in an environment where offerings and sacrifices quite normal, why was this Day so special?
- THE PURPOSE OF THE SACRIFICIAL SYSTEM
In order to understand the importance of this Day, we must first look at the purpose for which God instituted a very meticulous sacrificial system. Scholars mention that the entire sacrificial system was for the Israelites to be able to have communion with God in his holy presence and also to deal with any hindrances that would prevent this privilege (Alexander and Baker 706). In other words, God wanted his people to relate with him, and this system provided a platform for them to outwork this special relationship. Tidball’s helpful summary of the five types of offerings confirms this notion. He says:
“… [i] the whole or burnt offering…, a general act of worship and atonement; [ii] the grain offering…, an expression of covenant commitment; [iii] the fellowship or peace offering…, a celebratory and communion meal in the presence of God; [iv] the sin or purification offering…, which dealt with unintentional sins; [v] and the guilt or reparation offering…, which involved making restitution for wrong. They could initiate a new relationship between God and his people, remedy a damaged one or strengthen an existing one.” (Tidball 75)
The heart of the matter, as Jenson rightly points out, is relationship (Jenson 55). The meticulous details tell us that God is really serious about it. Sadly, many Christians tend to neglect these details during their daily devotionals. I would argue that studying these details helps us understand what is at the very core of God’s intention, i.e., relationship.
This obviously leads us to three very key aspects of the sacrificial system which Kurtz says are the people who took part in it, the priest who mediated it and the place at which the sacrifices and the offerings occurred (Kurtz 17–51). This formed the pre-requisites of their sacrificial system, without which it could not function.
- THE PROBLEM OF SIN
However, sin had pierced into the very foundation of their sacrificial system. The DOTOTP says that the penetrating nature of sin caused by the people and the priests, both intentional and unintentional, had spread pollution right up to the very Holy of holies (Alexander and Baker 56). Tidball mentions very vividly that, “Just as the physical pollution of our natural environment is rendering some cities almost uninhabitable, so the spiritual pollution of Israel rendered the Tent of Meeting uninhabitable to God (Tidball 72). In doing so, the very means to relating with this holy God has been defiled. And in order to make things right, this polluting nature of sin has to be dealt with. In fact Tidball says that, “The offence must be removed…it must be taken away.”(Tidball 71)
- THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
Thus, arises a need for the Day of Atonement. Levine suggests, and many scholars would agree, that the main purpose of the Day of Atonement was to remove all impurities from the sanctuary so that God would not withdraw his presence from his people (Levine 99). The DOTOTP clearly states that rites of this day purged the sanctuary of the uncleanness caused by the sin of the people during the past year, thus achieving complete atonement and extending the validity of the system for yet another year (Alexander and Baker 56). Kurtz is even more emphatic as he states,
The observance of this day was founded upon a feeling, that such expatiation as the fore-court could furnish was really faulty and insufficient, and that Israel had to look for a higher and more perfect expatiation, in which all the defects of the existing means of atonement would be fully remedied and supplied. (Kurtz 386)
In this way we see that the very foundations on which the Israelites were able to commune with God was prone to defilement, and even that had to be atoned for.
In order to see how atonement was achieved we will first look at the meaning of atonement itself and then three unique features of the Day of Atonement.
- The meaning of atonement
According to the DOTOTP, most scholars agree that atonement is synonymous for reconciliation (at-one-ment). However, what they differ upon is the manner in which this atonement is achieved (Alexander and Baker 709). Tidball gives the possible ways for attaining this as being derived from the Hebrew root word kpr, from which we get the word atonement. He says it could mean ‘to cover’, ‘to ransom’ or ‘to wipe away or purge’ (Tidball 78). However, if we consider the whole system within a relational framework rather than a legal one, we see that in a relationship as long as the transgression is still there, no amount of covering up or paying for can bring about reconciliation. Though it may bring temporary reconciliation at that moment it will still be present at the back of the mind of the offended one. But when we consider the uncompromising holy nature of God as well as one who remembers our sins no more (Is 43:25), we conclude that God wants to get rid of the sin completely. Hence, I would argue that, in this context, the word means atonement achieved through the wiping away, getting rid or purging of sin.
- The unique features of this Day
There are many rituals that place on this Day that are common to those that take place on other days. I want to highlight three unique features.
- First, the nature of sin that is dealt with in Leviticus 16, which is a detailed description of the proceedings of the Day of Atonement, as suggested by Tidball includes every possible type of sin that could ever take place. This is confirmed by the four different Hebrew words used for sin, which mean uncleanness (tumâ), outright rebellion (peša), conscious wickedness (āwôn) and any wrongdoing (hattā’t), thus covering all bases (Tidball 78).
- Secondly, unlike any other sacrifice, the rites of this Day could only be performed by the High Priest, who is rightly referred to by Kurtz as one, “… in whom the priestly dignity of the whole priesthood culminated” (Kurtz 386). It was on this day alone that he could enter the holiest place on earth, the Holy of holies. The way in which he could enter was also very specific, as Jenson says that there was only one way and no other (Jenson 101). Thus we see that in terms of holiness, this was the best that the people could offer.
- Finally, on this day we see the use of a scapegoat for Azazel. On all other days, like this day blood sacrifices were made. However, on this particular day we see a live goat on which the sins of the entire nation is transferred upon and sent outside the camp, into the wilderness (Lev 16:20-22). There are many issues surrounding the mystery of Azazel, which Jenson points out could refer to the place where the goat is sent which is an ‘inaccessible region’, or the name of the goat which is ‘the goat that goes away’, or to a possible goat demon present in the desert (Jenson 102). However, Wenham is very helpful in pointing to us that the transparency of the ceremony lies in the fact that the sins of the people have been removed from their midst and sent to an unclean place (Wenham 233). Tidball also mentions the scope of the geography discussed in this ritual is wider than any other. He says, “[The rituals] serve to underline the comprehensive scope of forgiveness made available on the Day of Atonement” (Tidball 81). Tidball also reminds us of the evidence of God’s grace in this particular ritual when he quotes Psalm 103:12, “…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Tidball 79–80).
- THE DAY OF CALVARY
As we look at what was achieved on the Day of Atonement we cant but realize the striking similarities it bears to what was achieved for us on the cross. Tidball rightly reminds us that, “Jesus is both the priest and the sacrifice, …Every aspect of the work of atonement discerned in the complex model of that ancient annual festival finds fulfillment in him” (Tidball 84)
In this way we see that God’s holiness required complete removal of sin in order for him to continue in relationship with his people, the very reason for the institution of the sacrificial system. However, sin defiled the very foundations of this and required the Day of Atonement to completely purge the entire environment from its pollution thus renewing the validity of the system. This ultimately pointed to the cross of Christ, which in a way made valid the very means through which this validity was attained.
As I ponder upon the entire sacrificial system mentioned so vividly in the book of Leviticus, I can’t help but marvel at the extent to which God wants to relate with us. God of the heavens chose to humble himself and dwell in a mere box in an earthly tabernacle. This proves that God’s incarnational intention was very clear right from the Old Testament times. The more I read, what many find difficult to get past, i.e., books of the Law, I realize that God is not interested in a legal transaction, but a relational one. I have thus learned to read these sections with new eyes.
I can’t, however, neglect the fact that my sin affects this relationship, and I have no one else to blame but myself. As Goldingay rightly says, “Our infidelity to God as a lover, our disloyalty to God as a friend, and our ignoring of God as generous father has placed a barrier of conflict, anger, and enmity between us which we as people in the wrong can hardly begin to attempt to overcome (Goldingay 49). One thing for sure is that God is not going to compromise on his holiness. And just as this paper proves that no earthly sacrificial system is potent enough to make atonement for my sins, there is a need for a heavenly element. This is fulfilled again in relational motivation and incarnational nature of the Father that is expressed solely in the Son. Jesus’ death on the cross has made full atonement for my sins and thus reconciled me with the Father in heaven. He has not just carried upon himself my sins, but like the scapegoat, he has taken them away to a such a distant place that enables the psalmist to say in Psalm 103:12 “…as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Alexander, T. Desmond, and David W. Baker. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003. Print.
Goldingay, John. Atonement Today: A Symposium at St John’s College, Nottingham. SPCK, 1995. Print.
Jenson, Philip Peter. Graded Holiness: A Key to the Priestly Conception of the World. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992. Print.
Kurtz, Johann Heinrich. Offerings, Sacrifices and Worship in the Old Testament. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1998. Print.
Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus: The JPS Torah Commentary. United States of Ameriace: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989. Print.
Tidball, Derek. The Message of the Cross: Wisdom Unsearchable, Love Indestructible. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2001. Print.
Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988. Print.
Written By Joshua George
Joshua George, currently pursing post graduate theological education at South Asian Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, lives in Bangalore with his wife Priyanka and two children Joel & Anaiya. The above post is research paper submitted as part of the Old Testament Module for M.A. (Theological Studies)