“The Tragic and Triumphant Cross Leading to Hope for Us All”
“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died. The Lord said to Moses; ‘Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat. Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place; with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen sash, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy vestments. He shall bathe his body in water, and then put them on. He shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.'”
“‘Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.'”
“‘Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house; he shall slaughter the bull as a sin offering for himself. He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense, and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times.'”
“‘He shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. No one shall be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the sanctuary until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement on its behalf, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat, and put it on each of the horns of the altar. He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.'”
“‘When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.'” (Leviticus 16:1-22)
Like Passover, the feast of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) began in the exodus and continued in an annual ritual in Jerusalem. The complex rituals are described at the pivotal center of the book of Leviticus, as the climax of its laws of sacrifice, priestly service, and purity. On this supremely important day, the impurities of the sanctuary, priests, and people were removed, repairing Israel’s relationship with God.
Only on this one day each year could the high priest pass beyond the curtain of the sanctuary and enter the Holy of Holies. Because entering the presence of God was such a dangerous venture, Aaron and the high priests who succeeded him were required to prepare and to follow a prescribed ritual lest they should die during the encounter. On this singular day, the high priest was to lay aside the splendid, ornate garments of his office and clothe himself in a white, linen garment as an expression of the humility and penitential attitude necessary to perform his sacred duties.
After offering a bull for his own sin offering and a goat for that of the people, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to officiate in the presence of God. He brought with him a censer full of fiery coals and finely ground incense. The smoke from the incense upon the coals obscured the divine presence so that God’s majestic holiness would be bearable by a sinful man. He then sprinkled the sacrificial blood, first of the bull and then of the goat, upon the “mercy seat” which covered the Ark of the Covenant in order to atone for his own sins and for the sins of the people. Since blood is the essence of life, the shedding of blood in sacrifice symbolizes a life laid down on behalf of others and the sprinkling of the blood applies the effects of the sacrifice, bringing cleansing and forgiveness.
The rituals of atonement for the sins of the people were performed with two goats. One goat was sacrificed as a sin offering to the Lord; the other was designated as the scapegoat, to be sent away to Azazel, the demon of the harsh wilderness. The high priest places both hands on the live goat’s head, confessing all the sins of Israel over it, and sends it away into the desert. The people’s sins are thus removed as far away as possible and done away with. Sin does not belong with God’s covenanted people, so it is taken back to its source among the wild spirits of the wilderness.
The report of Yom Kippur describes the impurities which alienate God from his people using a variety of terms; uncleanness, transgressions, iniquities, and sins. The rites for the Day of Atonement remove impurities from all Israel, through rites and sacrifice and riddance, beginning in the most sacred place and extending to the farthest fringes. Atonement is an act of God in his own dwelling place which leads to the removal of sin as far away as possible.
Why are rituals of reconciliation important? What does the annual Day of Atonement tell you about human nature?
God of the covenant, you are awesome in power and majestic in holiness. Sin alienates me from your generous and loving presence. Cleanse and forgive me of my wrong and dwell with me all the days of my life.