Leviticus 16 revolves around the Day of Atonement. In Jewish culture, the Feast of Trumpets marks the New Year. You then have ten days between the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement, and those ten days are used in preparation and examination. So, in Leviticus 11-15, we’ve been looking at the difference between the clean and unclean. Now, we have internalized it to examine ourselves before God. These ten days were ten days of deep soul searching, sometimes even fasting. They are called “the days of awe”. The word atonement means to “cover over”. So, the way the year started was through deep soul searching and confession and repentance, followed by Yom Kippur.
The Day of Atonement has arrived, and we’re standing before the Lord waiting to see the verdict. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is thought of as a day that we stand trial. Our whole year is open before HaShem, and therefore we are repenting and coming before him in brokenness and humility, seeking forgiveness of our shortcomings. We only get this one chance, because if God doesn’t accept the sacrifice, there is no atonement for the nation of Israel at all.
Now, the Day of Atonement revolves around the high priest. In our text, we find in verse 2 that God specifically says not to enter into the Most Holy Place at your leisure. Rather, only one day out of the year (considered a feast day according to Leviticus 23), the high priest would sacrifice once for himself and his household (verse 6), and then also for the people (verse 15). Notice that both of these will have their blood sprinkled upon the atonement cover.
If this guy, the high priest, is going in on behalf of you, you want him to have his junk together. This is why the first part of Leviticus 16 revolves around the high priest sacrificing on his own behalf. Even so, there were extreme lengths that are recorded that the people might go to in order to ensure that the high priest is not coming before God in sin. One of those extreme lengths is that a man was hired to keep the high priest awake all night so that he wouldn’t dream and have… nocturnal issues.
Also see that no one is allowed in the Tent of Meeting while Aaron goes in (verse 17). There were two “rooms” in the Tent of Meeting. There was the outer room, the Holy Place, and the inner most sanctuary, the Most Holy Place. It was imperative that the priests would tend to the Holy Place throughout the day, because they need to keep the incense altar going, the showbread needs to be replaced, the menorah needs to be tended to (whether its wick or oil or otherwise), etc. However, at this moment, no one goes in except the high priest. All of Israel stands outside and waits for the high priest to come out. If the high priest does not come out, Israel’s sin is not atoned – the Lord has brought judgment upon Israel.
Can you sense the sacred moment?
There are two goats (verse 8). One is for atonement, and the other is for removal. It is one thing to have your sins covered over; it is another to have them removed. The one goat gets killed and the blood sprinkled upon the mercy seat, but the other goat gets our hands placed upon its head so as to impart our sins onto it. Notice that this isn’t the sins of one person – the high priest – but of the entire nation being placed upon the goat. It is after the sacrifice has been accepted, and the high priest comes out, that the scapegoat is brought before the whole community. The high priest will lay his hands upon that goat’s head and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of Israel, and put the sin upon the goat’s head (verse 21). The goat is then sent away, in the care of a certain man, into the desert to be released and eventually die.
Now, there came a later tradition where the Israelites would get a Gentile to take the goat out into the wilderness, because you don’t want an Israelite to bear that responsibility and mess up. The Gentile would take the goat to a certain cliff, and throw it over. The reason for this is simple, and hilarious. What would happen if you pray over this goat, confessing the sins of the people, and lead it out into the wilderness to die, only for a few days later you see this same exact goat wandering the streets of Jerusalem? Because the tradition was started, it causes me to ask the question of whether this actually happened one year. Could you imagine the shock and terror? Instead of bearing our sins and taking them to the grave, the goat has returned and brought our sin back with it!
All of this revolved around a simple assumption. The scapegoat is not simply a sacrifice. We put our sin upon its head, and therefore it is not just a goat – it is our sin. And when that goat goes away, so does our sin. The Jewish people literally believed that God was capable of removing their sins and putting it upon the head of the goat, and therefore that goat is no longer a goat – it is their sin. They actually believed that when the goat left, their sins left with it.
The Day of Atonement is about deep introspection. Is there anyone that has harmed me, or cursed me, and I am not forgiving them? Is there anything that I am doing to cause myself to be unclean? Is there something that happened to me – abuse, torment, hurt – that I am carrying around because I believed the lie that I deserve it? You see, the Day of Atonement is about deep introspection, but it is also about freedom. When that goat leaves, and all of my junk goes with it, it is finished.
Now, there was a tradition, according to the Mishnah and Talmud, that a red chord would be tied around the horns of the goat. The chord did not remain upon the goat. It was taken off and laid upon the altar (according to early tradition). The legend goes that over the course of the next year, this chord would miraculously turn white. The only reference that we might have to this biblically is found in Isaiah. In Isaiah 1:18, the prophet beckons, “Come now, let us reason together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Here the prophet is taking the image from the thread and using it as an illustration to call Israel back unto repentance.
Skip ahead to the Gospel of John. John 19 gives the account of Jesus’ sentencing and crucifixion. When we start in John 19, we find a crown of thorns placed upon the head of Jesus. If the thorns are sharp, which we assume they are, then they would pierce his head. If the thorns pierce his head, what color would be around the top of his head? This is a lot like the red chord placed around the horns of the goat…
In Leviticus 16, the Hebrew word used that we translate as “scapegoat” is azazel. The most probable interpretation of this word is “to take away” – from the Hebrew verb for “to escape”. When we read of Pilate bringing Jesus out to the people, Pilate says, “Here is your king!” What is the reply of the crowd? If you thought, “Crucify him,” then you need to look it up in your Bible. The crowd explicitly is recorded as saying, “Take him away…” Jesus is our azazel.
Now, reflect back with me. Who carries out the scapegoat? The Jewish people hired a Gentile to do it, because they don’t want to be anywhere near that thing. It is one loaded goat, to say the least. And who led Jesus out of the city? The Roman soldiers led Jesus out. Interesting…
So, now we need to turn to personal reflection. I asked last time what it might be that we do that causes us to be unclean. Maybe this time we should add a question: What crap are you holding onto that you need to place upon that scapegoat? What junk in your life do you need to confess and put upon Jesus, fully expecting that when He goes to the cross and dies, so does all of the muck that has tried to rule you?
Maybe the next time someone – whether human or demonic – tries to remind you of your past, your sins, your failures… you should simply reply to them, “Umm… Look, buddy. I don’t see a goat around here anywhere.”
Turn to Hebrews chapter 9. We read in verses 6-14, “When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins of the people had committed in ignorance.” What does this remind you of? This is the Day of Atonement being spoken of. Hebrews 9 continues, “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing… When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and bulls; but he entered the Most Holy Place once and for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” Does this bring new light to these words?
We get to Hebrews 10:11-14 and read, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest (Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he had made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
Did you get that? Sometimes I hear Christians who will call themselves “sinners”. I don’t know, from the New Testament, if we can truly get away with calling ourselves “sinners”. While we still are wrapped in flesh, and we are still dealing with whatever kinds of addictions or sinful tendencies, I’m not sure we can call ourselves “sinner”. We have been made perfect, and even the apostle Paul claims that this is not me sinning, but the sin that dwells in me.
This is profound. Something has happened. I am not who I used to be. I cannot identify myself with the same junk that I used to be or do. I am no longer associated with that. Rather, as 1 John 2:1-2 claim, if I sin, I have one who speaks to the Father in our defense who is the atoning sacrifice. Yet, how does it end? It is not only my sins… Jesus is the atoning sacrifices for the sins of the whole world. Why? Jesus is the scapegoat, who took on the sins of the whole community and not just my individual sins.
Let me also deal with this one: I don’t believe that we are somehow in a happy fun land where we deny our struggles and sins. Nor do I believe that we should seek to escape consequence. However, our theology should not be built around shame and my fallenness. It should rather be shaped by who God claims me to be, which is free and changed. My sin has been nailed to that tree, and as long as Christ is no longer in the grave, neither am I. He became curse so that I would no longer have to deal with my curse. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The goat has left the building.
To get back to Leviticus 16, we see these profound truths to beg the question: what on earth have we been missing in Leviticus? What does Leviticus 1-15 speak to me to lead me up to this pivotal point, that I am set free and my sin has been taken away, and not simply “covered”? What happens in Leviticus 17-27 now that I am in this freedom? What else is in the text? What in the world are we looking at from Genesis to Leviticus 16? What are we finding from Leviticus 16 onward? This is a revolutionary and profound implication, a cosmic moment in history. Why does God have Leviticus 11-15 before Leviticus 16, which is really the same question of why is there darkness and chaos in Genesis 1:1-2 before God creates light in Genesis 1:3?
There is a pattern at work, one which begins with darkness and ends with perfection. You and I have been made new, brought out of our uncleanness and corruption and into purity and perfection. These are the cosmic and eternal implications behind the Day of Atonement. By all means, from here on out, remind yourself daily if you have to, that the goat has left the building. The question that now arises is, “What are you going to do about it?”