The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)

Once each year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, the high priest entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for himself, the other priests, the tabernacle and altar and the entire population of Israel (Leviticus 16). The purification rites enacted during this most special of days presupposed that the ordinary means of atonement (Leviticus 1-7, 11-15) were insufficient to purify the people completely and to make full satisfaction for all their sins. This was in large part because of the Israelites inevitable failure to follow perfectly all of the provisions God had made for them, but also because an innumerable accumulation of inadvertent sins had gone unrecognized and thus had not been expiated. Because God’s wrath had not been appeased for these impurities and transgressions, they had contaminated the Most Holy Place (Leviticus 16:16).

Two key issues concerning the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) were the order and significance of the ritual and the meaning/identity of the scapegoat.

After bathing on this central day of the Israelite religious year, the high priest donned white undergarments and a white tunic. He was not upon this occasion to wear his traditional ceremonial insignia, communicating by the absence of this “status symbol” that no one can approach God with any pretence of special authority or prestige.

The high priest began the ritual observance by offering a bull for his own sins and those of his household, after which he took a censer with burning coals and incense into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled blood from the bull unto the ark of the covenant. This deliberate self-inclusion demonstrated that no one, including the high priest, could stand guiltless before God.

The high priest proceeded to cast lots over two goats; one would be sacrificed, while the other was to become the “scapegoat”. The sacrificed goat represented propitiation, whereby the wrath of God against His people was turned aside. The scapegoat, on the other hand, represented expiation, whereby  the guilt of the sinners was removed.

The priest sacrificed one goat for the sins of the people, sprinkling some of its blood on the ark, after which he emerged from the tent and cleansed the altar with the blood of the bull and the goat.

Placing his hands on the head of the scapegoat, the high priest confessed the people’s sins over it. An individual appointed to lead the scapegoat out into the wilderness and release it was required afterward to wash his clothes and bathe before returning to the camp.

The high priest left his white clothing in the Tent of Meeting, bathed again and clothed himself in his regualr priestly apparel. These actions communicated that the holiness of the sanctuary had to remain there; none of it could be carried out with the priest into the camp. The sacrificed bull and goat were to be burned up entirely.

Some argue that the Israelites viewed the scapegoat as the physical embodiment of a “goat demon” of the desert. This interpretation, however, contradicts the teaching of Leviticus 17:7, which prohibits Israelites from making offerings to goat deities.

More likely, the Hebrew word translated “scapegoat” simply referred to a goat that was to be sent away. This is the interpretation suggested both in the Septuagint (early Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Vulgate (early Latin version of the Bible).

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