DAY OF ATONEMENT RITUALSBack to Alphabetical Index | Back to Chapter Index
This study examines the Day of Atonement rituals using Leviticus chapter 16 as a guide to show why God designed the Day of Atonement and why he required the high priest to enter the Most Holy Place once a year to perform the rituals of atonement.
There is some dispute among Bible scholars as to the chronological order of the rituals during this day. Because of this dispute and the complexity of the rituals, this study does not attempt to place each ritual in chronological order; instead, each ritual is analyzed as an individual event.
It is also important to note that the scriptures do not give exact details concerning how each ritual was to be performed. It seems that God did not feel it was necessary to record these details, because they are not essential to understanding the major lessons of the Day of Atonement.
Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7-11 give an overview of what was required of the Israelites concerning the formal worship of God on the Day of Atonement.
"And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger among you" (v29 KJV).
God commanded the Israelites to keep a national fast on the Day of Atonement. This command was for anyone who was considered part of national Israel, whether they were an Israelite by birth or an Israelite by choice (i.e., a proselyte. See Ex.12:19; Deut.31:12). This day was a day of cessation from all labor, including food preparation.
"For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord" (v30 KJV).
Notice that fasting is connected with the priest making the atonement for the people. This was a day when all sins (physical defilement and spiritual and moral sins) were purged from national Israel.
In verse 30, the English words 'cleanse' and 'clean' are translated from the Hebrew word 'tahor,' which is almost exclusively used to denote ritual and moral purity.
In Zechariah's prophetic vision (Zech.3:1-5), the high priest Joshua is pictured exchanging his filthy garments (unrighteousness) for rich apparel (righteousness), including a clean (tahor) turban. The clean turban is symbolic of his new pure and sinless condition and the authority that he would have as a righteous and sinless representative of God.
"It shall be a Sabbath of rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever" (v31 KJV).
This day was a day of cessation from all work and a day of fasting (not eating or drinking). On this day, the entire nation's attention was supposed to be focused on the meaning and purpose of this day's events.
"And the priest whom he shall anoint, and whose hand he shall consecrate to act as a priest instead of his father, shall make atonement, and shall put on the linen garments, the holy garments. And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, he shall make atonement; yes for the priest, and for the people of the congregation he shall make atonement" (vs.32-33 Para.).
These specific rites of atonement had to be performed in order to cleanse the Most Holy Place within the tabernacle, the tabernacle as a whole, the two altars, the priesthood, and the nation.
This atonement process for the removal of sin was to be performed once a year as long as the nation of Israel existed under the sacrificial system:
"And this shall be to you a never-ending statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel, because of their sins, once a year" (v34 Para.).
Leviticus 23:27-32 KJV
The Day of Atonement is an extremely important festival, and those who refused to observe it were subject to the same punishment as those who refused to keep the Passover and eat unleavened bread on the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and the Day of Atonement all had to do with the elimination of sin from God's chosen people, and God will not dwell where sin is:
"Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord. And you shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people. And whatsoever soul it be that does any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people" (vs.27-30).
The following scriptures show the festival, the command to assemble together for the purpose of worship, and the requirement to perform a national fast as a part of the day's worship are given:
"You shall do no manner of work: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a Sabbath of rest, and you shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall you celebrate your Sabbath;" (vs.31-32).
Numbers 29:7-11 KJV
"And you shall have on the tenth day of this seventh month an holy convocation; and you shall afflict your souls: you shall not do any work therein:" (v7).
Because all of the animals noted in verses eight through eleven are to be offered as burnt offerings as a sweet savor to the Lord, it is very unlikely that any of the eleven animals, except one of the goats mentioned in verse eleven, were to be used in the rituals concerning the Most Holy Place, the tabernacle, and the altars of sacrifice and incense. If this assumption is true, ten animals were to be offered as a part of the Day of Atonement's formal worship service, in addition to the two lambs of the daily sacrifice (Num.29:1-8; Ex.29:38-45) and the special atonement rites that were to be performed by the high priest (the bull and two goats):
"But you shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord for a sweet savor; one young bullock, one ram, and seven lambs of the first year; they shall be to you without blemish: And their meat [meal] offering shall be of flour mingled with oil, three tenth deals to a bullock, and two tenth deals to one ram, A several tenth deal for one lamb, throughout the seven lambs: One kid of the goats for a sin offering; beside the sin offering of atonement, and the continual burnt offering, and the meat offering of it, and their drink offerings" (vs.8-11).
Overall, God's instructions to keep the Day of Atonement contain the following important aspects of this festival:
THE ATONEMENT RITUALS
LEVITICUS CHAPTER 16
"The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who were killed when they offered unholy fire to the Lord" (Lev.16:1 GNB).
In the beginning of his instructions concerning how to perform the specific rites of atonement concerning the Most Holy Place, the tabernacle, the altars, the priesthood, and the nation of Israel, God inspired Moses to mention the deaths of Nadab and Abihu that resulted from their failure to pay attention to the laws of purity.
Aaron's Two Sons
The two sons of Aaron disregarded the instruction that God gave concerning keeping all physical contamination out of his presence. By bringing unholy fire within the confines of the tabernacle, they had committed a serious violation of the law concerning purity and the tabernacle. By placing the impure fire in their censers, they defiled themselves as well as their censers, which made them impure and unfit to minister before God.
This blatant violation of God's law brought a swift and fatal response from the presence of God. The law was very clear on this subject. All physical things (people or inanimate objects) that came into the presence of God while he was in his spirit form within the Tabernacle had to be in a condition of physical and ceremonial purity:
"And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord" (Lev.10:2 Para.). See also Lev.10:1,3, 9-10,12.
The Most Holy Place
"He said, 'Tell your brother Aaron that only at the proper time is he to go behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place, because that is where I appear in a cloud above the lid on the Covenant Box. If he disobeys, he will be killed" (Lev.16:2 GNB).
Within the heart of the tabernacle was the Most Holy Place. In this most sacred place was the ark of the covenant (i.e., the mercy seat) where the presence of God resided. The ark of the covenant contained the Ten Commandments written in stone by the finger of God, Aaron's rod which signified his authorization to meet with God and intercede for the people of Israel, and some of the food that God gave from heaven to sustain the Israelites as they traveled in the wilderness.
Who Was Aaron?
Who was Aaron and what were his responsibilities before God?
Aaron was the brother of Moses and his spokesman to the Pharaoh before Israel's exodus from Egypt. After the exodus, God appointed Aaron to administer the sacrificial worship system and represent the nation of Israel before him.
One of the reasons that God brought Israel out of Egypt was for the purpose of representing his system of worship and his way of life to the world: they were to be a nation of priests. Although Moses was first in authority in Israel as the prophet of God and the civil ruler, Aaron was the high priest who governed the priesthood serving at the tabernacle and he stood before God as the highest representative of Israel as a national priesthood.
Aaron's primary responsibility was to be a bridge between God and the people in all matters concerning the sacrificial system of worship. Because of this responsibility, Aaron and all subsequent High Priests were prophetic and symbolic of the coming Messiah who would offer the perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity and be the perfect and final mediator between Godthe Father and humanity.
The Performance of the Atonement Rituals
Although other members of the priesthood could officiate in various duties within the tabernacle, only Aaron as the high priest (and his successors) could perform the special rituals that were necessary for the atonement of the tabernacle and the people. Only Aaron could go behind the veil into the Most Holy Place where the presence of God resided upon the ark of the covenant:
"And there shall be no man in the tabernacle of the congregation when he goes in to make an atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel" (Lev.16:17 KJV).
This is the one day of the year when God would appear upon the mercy seat in his glorified spirit-form. Because God himself would appear, the awesome power of his presence would be extremely intense; therefore, great care had to be taken in order to prevent the accidental death of the high priest.
It is said that, because of the extreme danger involved in performing the rites of the Day of Atonement, at the close of the day during the time of the second temple, the High Priest would invite his friends to a banquet to celebrate his successful performance of the services.
Prior to actually entering the Most Holy Place as the representative of the nation of Israel, Aaron had to prepare himself by performing specific ritual sacrifices, washings, and other acts in order to make sure that he and the priesthood were in a condition of physical purity and any sins that they might have been guilty of were atoned for.
This preparation was necessary to guarantee that the High Priest would survive his meeting with God. Coming so close to the presence of God was extremely dangerous and required that the rituals of atonement were performed in exact detail in order to remove all physical impurity from the High Priest and the priesthood. If the high priest failed to perform these acts of purification correctly, he would die.
Under the agreement with ancient Israel, the priesthood, the people, and all things that came into close contact with God had to be purified and kept clean, simply because God will not dwell where there is sin (Lev.19:2; 1.Pet.1:15-16), whether it is sin of physical defilement (Ex.29:36-46; Deut.23:14) or spiritual or moral sin. Absolutely nothing that is physically or spiritually sinful under the terms and conditions of the agreement with ancient Israel could come into the presence of God without being destroyed by the power of his presence.
The Holy Garments
"Before Aaron goes into the Most Holy Place, he must take a bath and put on the priestly garments: the linen robe and shorts, the belt, and the turban" (Lev.16:4 GNB).
The clothing that Aaron was commanded to wear during the Day of Atonement rituals was different from the usual golden clothing that he wore when officiating as high priest.
Each time he would change from the golden attire into the holy linen clothing (see Lev.16:32) or the reverse, he was required to wash his hands and feet and take a ritual bath. It is said that this process occurred five times during the Day of Atonement rites.
The white clothing that was to be worn during the Day of Atonement rituals had great symbolic meaning for that day and the future. The scriptures clearly shows white clothing as symbolic of righteousness, and, by extension, the one wearing the white clothing is symbolic of a righteous individual who stands before God as pure and sinless. See Dan.7:9-10; Matt.17:1-3; Rev.3:4-5,18; 7:13-14; 19:7-8.
"And Aaron shall come into the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall put off the linen garments, which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there" (Lev.16:23 Para.).
This record does not indicate the reason Aaron was to leave the white linen clothing within the tabernacle. Some Bible scholars believe that this clothing was not to be used again and was to be destroyed. Others believe that it was left there to be used the next year. However, it seems logical that, whether it was destroyed or used again, it was left because it symbolized righteousness and righteousness can only exist where God's spirit is present.
The Bull and the Ram
"He may enter the Most Holy Place only after he has brought a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering" (Lev.16:3 GNB).
The bull was to be a sin offering. The word 'sin' in verse 3 is a translation from the Hebrew word 'hattat.' This word appears many times in both Leviticus and Numbers and it alternates in meaning between 'the reality of disobedience to God', 'sin-offering', and 'the means of removing guilt and penalty'. In this context, the noun is closely associated with the Hebrew word 'asham', which is often translated as 'guilt-offering'.
Because God says that the young bullock was to be offered as a sin offering, it can be assumed it was being offered to expiate unintentional sin and to remove personal and physical defilement. See Ex.chp.29.
A ram was one of the animals that could be offered as a voluntary act of worship, an expression of devotion and complete surrender to the will of God, or for expiation of unintentional sin.
Although verse 3 notes that Aaron could enter the Most Holy Place after these two sacrifices were made, it is very likely that the sacrifice of the bull and the ram were a part of the day's formal worship and not a part of the special atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tabernacle, the two altars, the priesthood, and the nation as a whole.
Aaron's Sin Offering
It is only after Aaron had made these two sacrifices that he was prepared to proceed with the rest of the special purification rituals.
"And Aaron shall bring near the bullock of the sin offering, which is his own, and shall make atonement himself and for his house" (Lev.16:6 Para.).
"And Aaron shall bring the bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make an atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin offering which is for himself" (Lev.16:11 KJV).
The instruction for Aaron to sacrifice a bull as a sin offering for himself and his house is mentioned a total of three times (the number three is symbolic of divine perfection). The sacrifice of this bull not only atones for Aaron but also for those of his house (i.e., those of the priesthood).
Purification of the Altar of Incense
Exodus 30:1-10 contains the instructions for the construction of the altar of incense that was to be placed before the veil of the Most Holy Place:
"And you shall make an altar to burn incense upon . . . And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat. . . where I will meet with you. And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning . . ." (Ex.30:1,6-7 KJV).
"And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it [the altar of incense] once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once a year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy to the Lord" (Ex.30:10 KJV).
This is the requirement to make an atonement for the altar of incense once a year, which was necessary in order to remove all impurity from the altar before Aaron could take coals from it to place in his censer. Remember that, when God's spirit-presence comes into contact with impurity, impurity is destroyed. Therefore, the altar of incense had to be purified so that it would not contaminate Aaron and cause his death when he entered into the Most Holy Place to meet with God.
"And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not:" (Lev.16:12-13 KJV).
At some point after Aaron had made the appropriate sacrifices for himself and his household, he took burning coals from the altar of incense, placed them in the incense burner that he carried with him into the Most Holy Place behind the veil and placed a large amount of incense on the coals, which caused the pleasant smelling smoke to fill the room.
From the scriptures, we know that it was very dangerous to come into close contact with or to look upon the glorified spirit-form of God (Ex.33:18-23; Lev.10:1-2); therefore, it is logical that Aaron would purify the altar of incense before taking live coals from it and going behind the veil to meet God.
The following could be reasons why the cloud of incense was necessary:
"Lord, I cry unto you: make haste unto me; give ear to my voice, when I cry to you. Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psa.141:1-2 KJV).
"And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand" (Rev.8:3-4 KJV). See also Rev.5:8.
Symbolically, it seems that the censer was the vehicle that held and carried the prayers of the people as they beseeched God to accept the offerings that were made for spiritual and moral sin and purification from physical defilement.
Purification of the Mercy Seat
After the sacrifices for the atonement of the altar of incense, it seems logical that the next ritual was the purification of the mercy seat with the blood of a bull:
"And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times" (Lev.16:14 Para.).
This is the blood of the bullock that was offered for the sins of Aaron and his house in order to expiate their unintentional sins and remove their physical defilement. We know this because the bull is called a sin offering, not a burnt offering which the bull was called. This is noted in the list of animals to be sacrificed separately from the special rituals of atonement on this day (Num.29:7-11). Moreover, sin offerings were mandatory for purification rites, whereas burnt offerings were voluntary and given as acts of fellowship and worship.
This blood was sprinkled upon and before the mercy seat seven times. The number seven is symbolic of divine perfection.
The Two Goats and the Ram
"From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering" (Lev.16:5 NIV).
Two goats were to be provided by the people of Israel to be used in the special rituals on this day. It is not clear from the scriptures whether this ram is the same ram noted in verse three or a different ram, which was to be offered at a different time. What is certain, however, is that no time-frame is given for the sacrifice of a ram, except that a ram was to be offered before Aaron went behind the veil.
"And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation" (Lev.16:7 KJV).
During each of the annual festivals one goat was offered for atonement of sin; however, on the Day of Atonement, there were two goats brought before God. These two goats were led to the door of the tabernacle, but not allowed to pass through it alive, which was the case with all animals used as sacrifices.
"And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat" (Lev.16:8 KJV).
There was a distinction made between the two goats; one was for the Lord and the other was for something different. Notice that God made the selection between the two goats, which may be symbolic of God the Father's selection of Christ as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. See Psa.40:6-7; Heb.10:7-9; 1.Pet.1:18-20.
Although the scripture states that the goat is for the Lord, by extension, this goat was also for the people; without the sacrificial blood of this goat being placed upon and before the mercy seat for its purification from physical defilement, neither God nor his presence would be able to dwell among the people of Israel.
"And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering" (Lev.16:9 KJV).
After Aaron went behind the veil and sprinkled the blood of the bull upon and before the mercy seat, he had to kill the goat that God had chosen to remove the physical defilement from the people of Israel.
"Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat" (Lev.16:15 Para.).
Again, blood had to be sprinkled upon and before the mercy seat seven times, but this time, the blood of the goat was sprinkled.
"And he shall make an atonement for the sanctuary because of the pollutions of the sons of Israel, and because of their transgressions for all their sins. And so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, which is dwelling in the midst of their pollutions" (Lev.16:1 Para).
Chapter 16 shows that the atonement was necessary because of the pollutions and transgressions of the Israelites.
In Leviticus 16, verse 1, the English word 'pollutions' is translated from the Hebrew word 'tuma', which means 'uncleanness'. ' Tuma' is associated with physical defilement (i.e., ceremonial impurity) which must be kept away from anything that is holy. Therefore, it was necessary for the Most Holy Place and the rest of the tabernacle to be purged of any physical defilement that might have slipped in during the year.
Atonement was necessary because of the transgressions of God's law. In verse 1, the English word 'transgressions' is a translation of the Hebrew word 'pesha', which means 'rebellion', 'revolt', or 'transgression'. This word is predominantly used to describe rebellion against the law and covenant of God; therefore, as it is used in verse 1, 'persha' denotes the sum of misdeeds and a fractured relationship between man and God.
As far as God is concerned, there are only two ways that 'pesha' (transgressions) can be erased: through punishment or a renewal of the covenant relationship.
Because the presence of physical impurity and spiritual and moral sin causes a breach between God and humanity, this breach had to be repaired in order for God and his people to continue to fellowship with each other. It was for the reason of renewing and maintaining this fellowship relationship that atonement for the Most Holy Place and the tabernacle was necessary.
Purification of the Altar of Sacrifice
"And he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about" (Lev.16:18 KJV).
Some believe that the altar noted in verse 18 is the altar of incense; however, this is highly unlikely because it was necessary to purify the altar of incense before Aaron took live coals from it in preparation to go behind the veil to meet with God.
"And with his finger he shall sprinkle blood on it seven times, and cleanse [Heb. tahor] it, and shall purify [Heb. qodesh] it from the uncleanness of the sons of Israel" (Lev.16:19 Para.).
In verses 18-19, the high priest is told to take the blood of both the bullock and the goat and put it upon the altar for the purpose of removing physical defilement and restoring it to a condition of ceremonial purity.
The altar is atoned for by the blood of both the bull and the goat, which had also been taken into the Most Holy Place. It is through this blood that the altar is made 'tahor' (i.e., ceremonially pure) and it is through this blood that the altar is consecrated to the sphere of the sacred 'qodesh' (i.e., made holy).
The blood of both the bull and the goat was used for the expiation of defilement from unintentional sins and this blood symbolically represents the blood of Jesus Christ whose perfect sacrifice makes it possible for all sin to be removed.
The Burning of the Bull and Goat
Only the blood of the bull and the goat was used in the atonement process; their fat had to be burned upon the altar of sacrifice for a peace offering. See Lev.4:26,31.
"And the fat of the sin offering shall he [Aaron] burn upon the altar" (Lev.16:25 KJV).
It is important to remember that these offerings were mandatory, not voluntary. Because they were mandatory, perhaps the offering of the fat indicated that God had accepted the blood of atonement and delighted in the sweet savor (smell) offering because he could be at peace with the Israelites.
"And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh, and their dung" (Lev.16:27 KJV).
Once the atonement process had been completed, the carcasses of the bull and the goat that were sacrificed for the atonement of the Most Holy Place, the tabernacle, the altars, the priesthood, and the nation as a whole, were taken outside the camp and burned.
"And he that burns them shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and after he shall come into the camp" (Lev.16:8 KJV).
The fact that the carcasses of the bull and the goat had to be burned outside the camp and the one who burned them had to bathe and wash before entering the camp, indicates that these animals were sacrificed for the purpose of purification. See also Ex.29:1-14; 30:20-21; Num.19:1-21.
The necessity for the atonement of the Most Holy Place, the tabernacle, the altar, the priesthood, and the nation as a whole once a year reveals that, without the power of God's spirit, it is impossible to preserve an object or a person in a condition of physical and spiritual purity for very long.
The Live Goat
Some people believe that the live goat represents the devil, and the sins of the people were put back upon him. However, this idea is inconsistent with the plan of God for the salvation of humanity; in that, salvation can only be obtained through the sacrifice and name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:10-12). The scriptures clearly say that Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Rev.12:10), but he has no part whatsoever in their justification to the Father or their ultimate salvation. Satan is the originator of sin and, therefore, he could never, in any way, have a part in being an atonement for sin.
Once the sacrificial process of atonement had been completed for the Most Holy Place, the tabernacle, the altar, the priesthood, and the nation as a whole, the live goat was brought to the high priest for the final ritual concerning the removal of sin from Israel:
"And when he has made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat" (Lev.16:20 KJV).
At this point in time, the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the nation as a whole were all in a condition of purity before God. The bridge between God and his people was maintained, and formal relations between God and his people could continue for another year.
Why the Live Goat?
During each of the other annual festivals, only one goat had to be offered for the atonement of sin, which is also true of the sin offering on the Day of Atonement. However, on the Day of Atonement, one live goat was required in addition to the goat of the burnt offering:
"And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him,. . ." (Lev.16:9-10 KJV).
If the atonement process was completed with the blood sacrifices that had already been given, and the tabernacle and the nation as a whole were already reconciled to God, why was there a need for a second goat? What sin could be left to atone for if all sin had already been atoned for?
What is a Scapegoat?
The English term 'scapegoat' used in the King James Version denotes a person, animal, or object upon which a community's impurity or guilt was transferred and then removed. Today, 'scapegoat' often refers to an innocent person whom people blame for misfortunes, faults, or sins.
The word 'scapegoat' is a translation of the Hebrew word 'azazel', which only appears in Leviticus 16. The exact definition of this word is uncertain. In all four usages it has the preposition 'to' attached to it, which seems to indicate that something is to be done to the goat. Various meanings that have been proposed are: 'the goat that departs', 'the goat that is banished', 'the goat that is removed', or 'the goat that is sent.'
Regardless of the precise meaning of the word 'azazel', this goat had to have the people's sins placed upon it and it had to be sent far from the people.
The Second Goat Remains Alive
Under the Law of Offerings, the animals offered for atonement were always killed. There is no example in the Law of Offerings in which a sin offering must be left alive; all sin offerings were to be slain by the hand of the one making the offering. This is a very important point to understand, because the sacrificial animal symbolically bore the punishment for the guilty person and symbolically paid for their transgression by literally giving its life (See Heb.9:22 and Lev.17:11). In view of these facts, why would the sins of the people ever be placed on a live goat?
Although the King James translation uses the words 'sin-offering' and 'atonement' in reference to the live goat, it is obvious that this goat is not offered as a blood sacrifice for the atonement of sin. Because the second goat remained alive, it must be symbolic of something entirely different from the sacrificial process of atonement for ceremonial, physical, spiritual, and moral defilement.
The key to understanding what the live goat literally and symbolically represents can be found in the original Hebrew language. Moreover, understanding the Hebrew words that are translated into the English words 'sin-offering' and 'atonement' in Leviticus 16, verses 5 and 10, will help clear up the confusion about the meaning of the live goat.
"From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering [Heb.'hattat'] and a ram for a burnt offering" (Lev.16:5 NIV).
The Hebrew word 'hattat' appears many times in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, alternating in meaning between 'the reality of disobedience to God', 'sin-offering', and 'the means of removing guilt and penalty' (i.e., atonement/expiation of sin).
Because one goat was slain and the other was left alive, it seems that a more conceptually accurate translation of the word 'hattat' in verse 5 would be one of the following:
Atonement for Sin
"But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat [azazel] shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat [azazel]" (Lev.16:10 NIV).
As stated before, the word 'atonement' (kippurim) concerns the means by which a person who is estranged from God is placed back into harmony with him. The conceptual meaning of 'kippurim' contains both the method and the result. When the method is properly carried out, the breach between God and man is healed; the result of sin is removed.
Both goats are a part of the atonement process by which the breach is healed between God and man. Each goat atones for the sins of the people; however, each goat does this by an entirely different method. One goat is slain to eliminate the result of sin and the other goat lives to eliminate the result of sin.
When the Bible was translated into English, the translators often did not know the exact meaning of certain words, so they made their best guess based on textual context, the theology of the day, and personal preferences. This seems to be the problem with the words 'hattat' and 'kippurim', which have been translated into 'sin', 'sin-offering', and 'atonement'.
Understanding that the translation and interpretation of the Hebrew words 'hattat' and 'kippurim' is dependent upon the context in which each is used is a major key to understanding the literal and symbolic meaning of the live goat.
Because the slain bull and goat had already fulfilled the function of substituting a life for a life in payment for the penalty of sin, the live goat, not being a blood sacrifice for sin, was still a part of the atonement process, as noted in verse 10. But what part?
The Bearer of Sin
When we view the live goat as only a bearer of sin and not a sacrifice for sin, the literal and symbolic meaning of it becomes very clear. The live goat was an atonement for sin, in that it bore the sins of Israel and carried them away from Israel. Thereby, it performed the function of an atonement by removing Israel's sin from God's view:
"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 in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat" (Lev.16:21 Para.).
Because the live goat was to bear the whole nation's sins, it is obvious that these sins still existed. But why? These sins still existed because the people were still guilty of sin, even after being purged of it through the blood of the sacrifices. The whole nation, including the priesthood, were still guilty of something.
To gain a clear understanding of what was placed upon the live goat, it is important to know the meaning of the Hebrew words that have been translated into the English words 'iniquities', 'transgressions', and 'sins' in Leviticus 16:21.
The English word 'iniquities' is translated from the Hebrew word 'awon', which means 'iniquity,' guilt,' or 'punishment.'
The English word 'transgression', which is used to describe the type of sin being atoned for in both Leviticus 16 and Numbers 29 during the special atonement rituals is the Hebrew word 'pesha', which can only mean 'rebellion', 'revolt', or 'transgression'. This word denotes the sum of misdeeds and a fractured relationship between God and man.
The Hebrew word used here for 'sins' is the noun 'hattat', which is usually used with the word 'pesha'. 'Hattat' pertains to the reality of guilt before God (i.e., sin).
Although all iniquity, all transgressions, and all sins of the nation of Israel were atoned for by the blood sacrifices, all of these sins existed and were to be symbolically placed upon the live goat. But, if Israel's sin had already been atoned for, why did it still exist?
Israel's Spiritual and Moral Sins Were Not Forgiven
There can be no doubt that the covering and removal of Israel's physical defilement (ceremonial and physical impurity) and the setting aside of the punishment for their spiritual and moral sin had been accomplished through the blood of the sacrifices.
There is also no doubt that their spiritual and moral sins had not been forgiven, because these sins were symbolically placed upon the live goat.
Israel's Sins Were Set Aside, Not Forgiven
The reason that the sins of Israel still existed after they were atoned for, is that they could never have been truly forgiven and forgotten. Before the advent of Jesus Christ, there was no forgiveness of sin as we think of forgiveness under today's agreement with God. Prior to Christ's death and resurrection, forgiveness of sin was temporary. Sins were forgiven, in that the punishment for certain violations of God's law were temporarily set aside.
The writer of Hebrews explains why sins under the sacrificial system could never be totally forgiven.
Hebrews 10:1-4 Paraphrased
"For the law being a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of these things, can never with the sacrifices which they continually offered year by year make the offerers perfect. If these sacrifices had made the offerers perfect, then why would they have to continually offer sacrifices? Would not they have ceased to offer sacrifices? If the worshipers were purged, then they should have no more consciousness of sins. But in these sacrifices there is a remembrance of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins."
The sins of Israel were brought to remembrance every year on the Day of Atonement because they were not forgiven or forgotten. The reason they could not be forgiven or forgotten was that the sacrifices were not perfect; they had no power to forgive sins. Therefore, the sins still existed and the people were still guilty of their sin.
Although the blood of bulls and goats was symbolic of the cleansing and forgiving power of Christ's blood, it could never forgive sins.
Israel's Sin Sent Away
"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 in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:" (Lev.16:21 KJV).
At the time these instructions were given, Israel was camped in Sinai, which was a very large and mostly uninhabited area. The English word 'wilderness', in verse 21, is translated from the Hebrew word 'midbar', which generally describes three types of country: pasture lands, uninhabited land, or the area of Sinai. Regardless of the exact meaning of the Hebrew word that was translated into 'wilderness' in verse 21 and 22, the inference is clear; the live goat had to be taken away from the camp of Israel and set loose:
"And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness" (Lev.16:22 KJV).
Although the live goat bore all the sins of Israel upon it and these sins were taken away from the camp of Israel, the punishment for these sins had not been exacted and the penalty had not been paid. The live goat could only atone for these sins by temporarily removing them from Israel, just as the slain goat could only atone for sin by providing a temporary substitute for the life of those who were guilty of sin.
The blood of bulls and goats could not forgive sin, it could only act as a temporary substitute for the life of the offender.
These sins still existed, the people were still guilty of sin, and the next year on the Day of Atonement these same sins and any committed during the year would be remembered and would have to be atoned for by the blood of bulls and goats and symbolically sent away from the nation of Israel for another year.
This atonement process had to be repeated year after year because, under the terms and conditions of the agreement between God and ancient Israel, only the life of the law breaker could pay the penalty for their sin. Animal life was only a substitute payment, which would be made until payment was made either by the law breaker or another substitute whose life was more valuable than that of the law breaker.
The Live Goat Was Defiled by Sin
"And he that let go the goat for the scapegoat shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh with pure water, and afterward come into the camp" (Lev.16:26 Para.).
The man who came into contact with the live goat had to be physically cleansed before he could come back into the camp, because he had been in contact with an animal that was symbolically defiled with the sins of Israel.
The Two Goats
Together, these two goats were symbolic of Israel's reconciliation with God. The slain goat symbolically paid the price of sin, whereas the live goat symbolized the removal of the sin.
These goats were both symbolic and prophetic of the perfect process of atonement. The blood of the slain goat represented the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, whereas the live goat represented sins awaiting Christ's perfect sacrifice in order to obtain total forgiveness of sin and its removal forever.
The Creator God brought the Israelites out of Egypt because he had a job for them to do and a purpose for their existence as a nation. These people were called to be a nation of priests who would represent God to the world as they practiced his religion to perfection; thereby, he would show his plan for the salvation of humanity.
The perfect situation would have been for Israel to have maintained physical purity and righteousness through perfect obedience to God's law. However, Israel could not do this because the entire physical existence was contaminated with physical defilement from which it was impossible to remain isolated for very long. Righteous behavior was also extremely difficult for the Israelites to maintain, because they did not have perfect character and were subject to human weaknesses.
The best that could be hoped for in this situation was that each time an infraction of the law was brought to light, it was atoned for at the earliest opportunity. Although atonement could be made for individuals daily and it was made daily for the nation as a whole, as time passed, unresolved sin of all types accumulated over the year.
Therefore, once a year on the Day of Atonement, all of the various types of sin that had accumulated over the past year were to be atoned for, so that God could continue to dwell among his people.
The Major Lessons of The Day of Atonement:
The Atonement for Sin
The special rituals on this day were performed for two basic reasons:
1. To cover and remove physical defilement (ceremonial and physical impurity) from the Most Holy Place within the tabernacle, the tabernacle itself, the altar, the priesthood, and the nation as a whole.
2. To set aside spiritual and moral defilement (sin) of the nation of Israel that was done unintentionally or through ignorance. Once these two things had been accomplished, the nation of Israel was reconciled to God and he could continue to dwell within the tabernacle and commune with his people.