Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Feasts of Israel: "Day of Atonement"

The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is not a day of feasting; rather, it is a day of fasting. However, the day before is a day to feast and the instructions for this holy day are in the midst of God’s directions to the Israelites in both Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29.

Last week, I posted on the first of Israel’s three Fall Feasts – The Feast of Trumpets which also marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year – Rosh HaShanah (click here). I mentioned last week that the belief is that God decides the judgment on Rosh HaShanah, but the verdict isn’t sealed until Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). During the time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the people examine their deeds, pray, fast, and repent. Yom Kippur begins the tenth day of the 7th month, and these ten days are known as The Ten Days of Repentance or the Ten Days of Awe.

The purpose of these ten days is to examine yourself, and pray for forgiveness, fast to show you mean it, and seek repentance to reduce the severity of the judgment that God has for you. What is expected is to first seek the forgiveness of others before seeking the forgiveness of God. It is thought that if we are not willing to seek forgiveness from those we can see, how can we truly seek forgiveness from God, whom we can’t see. Actually, this thought has a parallel in 1 John 4, where John wrote that how can we love God (whom we can’t see) if we are unable to love others (whom we can). Back to the idea of forgiveness, it is said that forgiveness must be sought, we cannot make others forgive. However, the Jewish rabbis long ago made it an expectation that if a fellow Jew seeks forgiveness during these ten days, you are commanded to graciously forgive.

Once forgiveness has been sought from others, one can then turn to ask God for forgiveness. Now, given this thought process, put yourself on the date of Yom Kippur – the actual date, the day that the judgment is sealed – in 1973. Israelis are fasting and observing their various ceremonies when news comes to them that Egypt is crossing the Suez Canal and making their way into the Sinai Peninsula. To the north, the Syrians have entered the Golan Heights and are making a march on Israel. Has God’s judgment come in the form of two enemies who coordinated their attacks during the holiest day of the year?

It is interesting to consider this question, especially in light of the fact that Yom Kippur is about the covering of sins. That is what atonement (or Kippur) means – covering. Of course, we know that our sins were paid (covered) by Jesus on the cross at Passover (Pesach) which reflects the lamb’s blood covering the door of the Israelites in Egypt. So, a good question is: Why did the Israelites, and later the Jews celebrate this Day of Atonement in the 7th month rather than in the first month (at Passover). It is a good question, and I have the perfect answer. God told them to do so. So what does it mean to have this separate day of covering? Well, hold on until the end, and I will try to answer that question. First, however, let me share a few more of the traditions related to this day, and then explain what God commanded for this day.

The Traditions

In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, many Jews go to the cemetery to ask for their ancestors to intercede on their behalf. The problem is that we are not to pray for the dead because their fate cannot be changed (Luke 16.19-31), nor to the dead for they know nothing (Ecclesiastes 9.5). We are appointed to die once and then face judgment (Hebrews 9.27), and have but one Advocate and that is Jesus (1 John 2.1).

I mentioned last week that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. (Rosh HaShanah is second most holy day). The prayer, the fasting, and especially the repentance is not just for the individual, it is for the community. While God certainly holds the individual responsible for their sin, the Bible clearly shows that one person’s sin affects the entire community. So a big portion of this day is not only make sure that you are ok with the Lord, but that others are as well.

Yom Kippur was crucial in understanding the tabernacle and later the structure of the temple. However, after the temple was destroyed, the sacrifices were no longer possible – as God had decreed – and prayer became the central element. On Yom Kippur, the synagogue took an important role. Additionally, the concept of afflicting the soul (Leviticus 23.27) was interpreted for clarity. According to the sages, the duty of afflicting the soul requires the prohibition of (1) eating and drinking, (2) bathing for pleasure, (3) anointing of the body with oil, (4) wearing leather shoes, and (5) engaging in sexual relations (Yoma 8:1). (1)

The synagogue ritual of Yom Kippur is structured around its five services, one more than is usual for a Sabbath or festival:
Kol Nidrei, the evening service.
Shacharit, the morning service.
Musaf, the additional service that includes the martyrology—remembering those who have given their lives for kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God’s name) and whose memory we invoke to ensure God’s blessing—and the Avodah, a description of the temple ritual for the day (see p. 218).
Mincha, the afternoon service.
Ne’ilah, the concluding service). (2)

With a brief look at the traditions of this Jewish holy day, let us now return to its primary purpose – atonement – the “covering” of our sins when we repent. And this is not just a part of tradition, but a command directly from God.


The primary passages about this day are from Leviticus 23.26-32, Numbers 29.7-11, and Leviticus 16. Leviticus 23 gives some important generalities – such as which day and instructions not to do any work,  Numbers 29 provides specifics on the sacrifices for the day – such as a bull, a ram, and seven male lambs plus the necessary grain and oil and the other elements for the various offerings due. But Leviticus 16 provides some details that we will quickly review today. Again, I think it is important that we see how these details came to be and what they meant. I will provide a brief understanding about Jesus fulfillment of this day, and then a bonus post late next week will provide further insights.

The Holy of Holies

Tabernacle as Described in the Old Testament
This area was the centermost of the tabernacle and later the temple. God’s promise was to be in the cloud above the seat of mercy one day per year. That is why the desire for mercy begins on Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh HaShanah, the Jews pray mentioning the 13 Attributes of Mercy as found in Exodus 34.6-7. All of that is prelude to God being at the mercy seat at the Day of Atonement.

Only one person could enter this place each year and only on this day of the year. The duty fell to the high priest and before he could enter he had to purify himself. The glory of God was present so anyone who was not worthy – or if they did anything wrong while in the presence of God would die. In fact, to prevent this, in much later times (from when God decreed the day), the Jews tied a rope with a small bell on the high priest so that if they stopped hearing the bell move, they would know the man had died and they could pull him out by the rope.

The Process of Atonement

The Jews added a couple of elements to this process to make sure that the high priest was ready for his assignment:
First, the high priest (Hebrew – Kohen gadol) was put into seclusion for one week. This was done so he wouldn’t accidentally touch or eat anything unclean.
Second, on the night before, the priest stayed up all night praying and reading God’s Word to purify His soul.

Then came the day of Atonement. On this day, many rituals were put in place – BY GOD – to make the process complete. You can read the full account in Leviticus 16, I am only highlighting the process.

1. Bathed from head to toe and dressed in pure, unstained white linen (Leviticus 16.4)
2. Make atonement for himself and his family (v. 6)
3. Burning of incense (vv. 12-13)
4. Sprinkling of blood (v. 14)
5. Make atonement for the Holy Place (vv. 15-16)
6. Make atonement for the tent of meeting (vv. 16-17)
7. Make atonement for the altar (vv. 18-19)
8. Lay hands on a goat to lay the sins of the people upon it (vv. 21-22)
9. Remove clothes, completely bathe and put on new white linen garments
10. Make atonement for the priests (v. 33)
11. Remove clothes, completely bathe and put on new white linen garments
12. Make atonement for the people of Israel (v. 24, 33)

This was nearly all done in full public view although the mikvah (where the ritual bathing took place) had a thin screen, so people could make sure it was done right.
One commentary describes the scene this way:
During the course of the day, he immersed himself and changed his clothes five times and washed his hands and feet 10 times.

The Kohen Gadol first offered a bull as his personal sin offering. He confessed his sins and those of his family, then the sins of the tribe of Aaron (the Kohanim), and finally those of all Israel (Leviticus 16:17). Every time the Kohen Gadol uttered the holy name of God (the Tetragrammaton), which was spoken only on Yom Kippur, the people prostrated themselves and responded: “Praised is His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever.” (3)

The Scapegoat

This portion has always been intriguing to me. God tells Moses that two goats are to be given by the people and the high priest is to cast lots to determine which one is killed and which one will be set loose. Now, when you first hear this you might think that the one set loose is better off – but that is actually the opposite of the truth.

  • The goat that is killed has its blood used as a part of the atonement process.
  • The goat that is set loose into the wilderness is only set loose after all of the sins of the people are placed upon it.

Thus, each year, one goat is chosen to bear the entirety of all sin for all of the people of all of Israel. This goat is then sent into the wilderness to Azazel. No one is fully certain what Azazel represents? Some believe it is a place, others believe it is a demonic presence. A great deal of thought has been put forth regarding the concept of a goat-demon and this story feeds into that thought process. Regardless, this goat was sent into the wilderness.

The goat is said to BEAR the sins of the people and is sent into wilderness never to return (Leviticus 16.8-10, 20-22, 29-34). This notion is where the concept of the scapegoat originates. The goat does escape, though it carries the burden of guilt on behalf of others. The interesting aspect here is that as we think of atonement, we have been taught that Jesus is our atonement. And He is! Here, we might consider each goat as representing a portion of who Jesus is – the goat that is slaughtered to make atonement is the perfectly, divine part of Jesus. The goat that bears the sins represents the humanity of Jesus – who though sinless Himself bore our iniquity. Yes, Jesus was the spotless Lamb, but the goats represent a part of the idea of atonement as well.

Three Lessons of Yom Kippur

Each of the feasts has three main lessons: God’s Protection, God’s Provision, and God’s Promise. Let’s review these now and we will see one means of how these lessons apply to us.

Protection: God’s mercy is real. (Leviticus 16.2b)

Provision: God has made a way for us to receive His mercy. (Leviticus 16)

Promise: God made a permanent – once and for all way – to receive His mercy. (Hebrews 9.11-28)

The one word that should come to mind for this day is mercy. Yes, it is the Day of Atonement. But God made a covering (atonement) for us because of His mercy. Many know the definition of mercy to be not getting something we deserve. That is what this day represents with God upon His seat of mercy – our sins being covered because of His great mercy.

The Real High Priest

Tim Keller, in his book, King’s Cross (see pages 81-84), provides a look at Zechariah 3 and how the high priest Joshua was shown to the prophet in a vision. Keller captures the essence well and I will borrow from him and from Zechariah 3 directly to help paint one more picture of this day.

The vision Zechariah sees would have been unbelievably disturbing to a Jew. First, the vision begins with the Lord and Satan on either side of Joshua, but the truly disturbing part would have been how Joshua is described – He is wearing clothing described as “filthy garments.” Although this Hebrew word is unique within the Old Testament, many times the idea of filthy relates to excrement or menstrual filth. Why is this significant? Remember, the high priest was to be fully bathed and in pure white linen garments when performing his duties on Yom Kippur.

But Joshua is not presented in this way. Instead, look what happens, the angel of the Lord (that is an OT notation for the Son of God) says, take off his clothes, because I have made you clean and I will give you clean garments (v. 4). He goes on to say that the “iniquity of the land” will be removed “in a single day” (v. 9, that is, the Day of Atonement!). The significance of this is astounding! The high priest, in this case, Joshua, could never truly make atonement. He could cover up the sins from the prior year, but the process had to be repeated the following year. And the year after that and after that, etc. But our high priest – Yeshua – makes atonement for all time – for the high priest, for the assembly, for everyone. (Incidentally, Yeshua and Joshua are the same spelling in the Hebrew.) So, it was another Joshua, or Yeshua, that came to truly make atonement for us.

Consider a few more aspects of the high priest and Jesus.

Like the high priests:
Jesus was prepared the prior week  (John 12.1, 3)
Jesus stayed up the night before praying (John 17)
But Jesus was spotless, yet He took our sins (John 1.29)

But unlike the high priests before Him, Jesus was the:
Ultimate Fulfillment (1 Peter 1.19)
Superior High Priest (Hebrews 7.22-28)
Once-for-All Sacrifice (Hebrews 9.11-28)
Redemptive Cleansing (Hebrews 10.19-22)

At our church this week, we remembered Christ’s sacrifice by partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Rather than the usual Steps, let me encourage you to confess your sins, seek God’s mercy through repentance, and reflect on what Jesus, as our great high priest did for us by becoming the once-for-all sacrifice.

1. Eisenberg, R. L. (2004). The JPS guide to Jewish traditions (1st ed., p. 206). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
2. Ibid., 208.
3. Ibid., 220.

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