Symbols in the Day of Atonement

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“What’s that?” you might have asked.

“Hamartiology” is a big word. It’s complicated. Dictionary consultation might be in order if you don’t know its meaning. (What? I have to look up a word I’ve never heard of, and one that looks like it’s just “made up” anyway? I think I’ll just piddle around looking at the pretty pictures and funny jokes all my dear friends posted on Gabba-Jabber in the last few minutes. Yeah, that’ll be a lot more fun!)

Of course, I’m not going to just let it fade away to nothing, because, see, I started getting this idea after hearing Rev. Jean F. Larroux’s sermon on Sunday, and the whole idea became very interesting to me after I thought it over for a while, read the text a few times, and thought about it some more. So, since I want to learn new things, and pass them on to others who might want to know them, well, no, I’m not going to drop it and forget the whole thing. Some things are worth thinking about, and I happen to believe this is one of them.

This bigcomplicated word is an Anglicized portmanteau word derived from two Greek words, hamartia (sin) and logos (word). It turns out to be the theological term for the doctrine of sin. I could not hope to compose one word per one hundred million words already written on this subject by those far superior to me in theological study and thought, and will probably add nothing to what is already known by the vast majority of those who might read this posting. So, if you’re certain you’ll learn nothing new by reading this, I invite you to employ your time more wisely than you would by continuing to read. Still friends, right? After all, even if you don’t read it, I have the privilege of writing my thoughts; that’s called a win-win.

I won’t argue the point that hamartiology is an important field of study. Either you believe that sin is a real and horrible thing, that all of humankind (and by incorporation all of Creation) are ruined and undone by sin and sinfulness, that God the Father Almighty hates sin in every single one of its manifestations, and that sin and sinfulness demand either a perfect payment or a permanent punishment, or you believe none of it. Either you believe that the breadth and depth of sin require an infinitely more effective satisfaction, or you don’t. I happen to believe all of these things, and think it would be a good thing for you to examine the ideas; but I won’t attempt to force you–that’s not my job. I just want to write about this interesting topic.

Still here? I appreciate it, because sometimes I take a while to get to my point. I will hasten to the second part of my title, the Day of Atonement.

Indeed, atonement is also a big and complicated word, but it is probably not of Greek origin. Some scholars believe William Tyndale derived it from an English phrase, atonen (“in accord”), for his English translation of the early Sixteenth Century to convey the idea of “agreement”. But this agreement is not something like a business deal, wherein two equal adversaries compromise from their disagreement to something like trust. This agreement is one that is between God and Humankind, but it is one of those special arrangements wherein God, being Sovereign, makes the deal, and the dealing is finished; that is called a covenant. Humankind, in its “ruined and undone” state, you see, had nothing to bring to the table, nothing to offer in return, no leg to stand on, so to speak. (That’s the way things tend to be when people deal with the Supreme Being.)

So now we’ve dealt, quite superficially, with the ideas of sin and atonement. But we’re not quite through to the “Day of Atonement”, or its connection with the doctrine of sin, or hamartiology.

Anyone even minimally aware of Jewish culture and history knows that the High Holy Day of the Jewish year is Yom Kippur, or in English “The Day of Atonement”; some prefer “The Day of Atonements”. I believe that most who are aware of even that much remain blissfully unaware of the importance of the Day, and of the activities of the Day, in Jewish cultural history. There is a huge amount of cultural history attached to the purpose and the activities of Yom Kippur, not least that the High Priest of Israel could do one thing on that day of the year, and on that day only, and that was to enter the Holy of Holies, the Holiest Place, within the Temple curtain (or the Tabernacle during the wilderness wandering period), for the most sacred purpose of making atonement for his own sins, and for those of Israel. And those are not the only things the High Priest is required to “make atonement for”…

Of course, that brings us to a critical point, for I am about to mention that thing very disliked, even despised, by most readers, The Bible, and in particular the Old Testament book of Leviticus, at chapter sixteen. It is at this critical point that many readers, having made it this far, will simply abandon the project. My temptation is to say, “That’s okay,” and continue with my writing. The fact is that I do not particularly think it is okay for you to stop reading simply because I’ve mentioned The Bible, but of course, it is your choice, your decision to take. Should you take leave of me at this point, I will only say, “Live long and prosper,” with all the sincerity of a Mister Spock. But there is some fascinating information in that sixteenth chapter of Leviticus, and I honestly believe you might profit from taking some note of it.

Exodus, chapters thirty-five through forty, describes the Wilderness Tabernacle’s construction details and layout in minute detail. A knowledge of these facts is helpful toward understanding the activities of the Day of Atonement, since such knowledge provides sense of movement and scale to the description in Numbers sixteen. From the outside it appeared to be a rectangular enclosure with a single entrance that also served as the exit, always placed in the center of the eastern end of the enclosure. The ratios of length to width to height of the external structure were 25:12.5:1, and the entrance occupied 40% of the eastern end.

Upon entering the courtyard so constructed and proceeding westward, one first encountered the bronze altar of offering, an elevated structure which served only one purpose: this was the place where animal sacrifices were slain. Further west was the laver, a large bronze bowl filled with water, in which the priests washed their hands and feet before entering the tent containing the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Holy Place contained, along with the Most Holy Place, three other objects. To the left stood the menorah, the seven armed stand whose lamps burned throughout the night and provided the only source of physical light within the tent. To the right was the table of showbread, set weekly with twelve loaves of bread which, having been consecrated, were consumed by members of the priesthood at the end of the week. Directly west, just before the veil protecting the Most Holy Place, stood the golden altar of incense, upon which was burned the consecrated spice mixture each day at the time of the morning and evening sacrifices on the bronze altar in the courtyard. Immediately to the west of the altar of incense stood the Holy of Holies, the place occupied by God Himself, and the place that only one man, the High Priest, could enter, and then only after suitable preparation and only on the Day of Atonement; the Holy of Holies was protected by its veil. Within the Holiest Place stood one piece of furniture, consisting of the Ark of the Covenant and the atonement cover, or mercy seat, which served as the lid for the Ark. Within the Ark were three objects of great significance in Jewish history: the pot of manna, the rod of Aaron, and the stone tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments.

Here is a link to Leviticus 16, in the New International Version. This page will open in a new window or tab. (There is a handy drop-down menu at the site, by which many other translations may be found.) I will not attempt a verse-by-verse analysis of the chapter, as that is frankly above my exegetical abilities by many orders of magnitude. My purpose is to elucidate, in a very small way, some of the high points.

1 The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the Lord.

The first thing we notice is that this text provides historical context. Something had happened: the two sons of Aaron had died. This had happened for a reason: they had approached the Lord. Then Moses received a message, from that same Lord:

2 The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.

This explains the reason Aaron’s sons had died, for it proclaims that Aaron himself, the High Priest of Israel, would die for the same reason, should he come at the wrong time into the Holiest Place. Even the person of the High Priest was to be prepared suitably before encountering the presence of God Himself. This preparation is most explicit in detail, and the fine granularity of the detail requires complete adherence.

3 “This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

It is important to notice here that the first thing Aaron is required to do before entering the Holy of Holies is to prepare offerings, of the proper type, and to “bring” them. Aaron would have brought the animals through the entrance and presented them to the Lord, to be held at the bronze altar until the time of their sacrifice.

4 He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on.

The preparations continue with the ritual washing and donning sacred clothing. Aaron has now brought the offerings, a job that might of itself have involved becoming dirty, so he must wash before he dons the priestly garments.

5 From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

Now, Aaron is already washed and clad in the sacred garments, so “take” here likely means “accept”. The High Priest is to receive the offerings from the Israelites, since he is acting in his capacity as High Priest, being the intermediary between God and the Nation. Possibly this requires that he leave the Tabernacle proper, even after the washing and donning the sacred garments, but this is not clear to me, particularly in light of verse seven; for the High Priest to exit the Tabernacle at this point implies a reversal of his progress toward the actions that are to follow. It seems more likely that the goats have already been brought inside the entrance prior to this time, and are being held there.

6 “Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household.

Now we learn the reason for the sin offering of the young bull. It is to atone for the sins of the High Priest himself, and for those of his household as well. Even the High Priest must not only be clean, and clothed properly, but his sins and those of the ones closest to him must receive atonement before he can continue the ritual. However, prior to the actual sacrifice of the bull, Aaron must deal with the two goats.

7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. 9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

That at least answers the inevitable question: Why two goats? And why is one, the goat chosen by lot for the Lord, to be killed as a sin offering, but the other one driven “into the wilderness as a scapegoat”? More mysteriously, how is the one sacrificed to be a sin offering, but the one sent away, after being presented alive to the Lord, to make atonement? It begins to appear that there are two “atonements”, two different kinds of “agreement” in play at this juncture. I hold all of that in abeyance for now, for it may just come up again…

11 “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering.

It is very important, I think, to notice here that no sacrificial animal has been killed until now, when the High Priest must slaughter the young bull as “his own sin offering”, “for himself and for his household”. He cannot proceed until this crucial step has been completed.

12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die.

Finally the High Priest may, after he sacrifices the young bull, enter safely behind the veil, into the presence of the Lord, being properly prepared with the burning coals and the incense to cover himself, as it were, from the Holiness of God and His wrath, a wrath that is just even after an atoning sacrifice.

14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.

Now the High Priest has brought the atoning blood of the young bull into the Most Holy Place, and he has sprinkled some of that blood directly upon the mercy seat as well as in front of it. Having completed this act, he may now proceed to the next steps in the ritual.

15 “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness.

Only after completing the act of atonement for his own sin, and for that of his family, the High Priest may now kill the goat set aside by lot for the sin offering of the people, but this requires that he go back into the courtyard, to the bronze altar, and there collect the goat’s blood. Having returned into the Holiest Place, he sprinkles the people’s sin offering upon the mercy seat.

17 No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.

This is a very interesting and illuminating point, I think. Since there may be no others within the Tabernacle while the High Priest is performing the central duties of his office, and since the enclosure is quite large, the High Priest was alone, in human terms. God, the High Priest, and two goats are the only witnesses!

18 “Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. 19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites. 20a “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar,…

A very startling thing is here. The bronze altar itself requires atonement. No, that is a stunning revelation. The altar “before the Lord”, the altar of sacrifice within the Tabernacle, has itself been tainted by the sin, the sinfulness, the uncleanness of the people. Every single horn on the altar must be covered with the blood of two animals. The altar itself must be “consecrated” for its holy purposes. This is demonstrative of the effects of humankind’s sin upon the whole of Creation, that even those things set aside for holy uses are affected by that sin. Even the tent of meeting, or the Tabernacle, must have atonement. Most incredible of all is the fact that the Most Holy Place, the sanctum sanctorum, the dwelling place of God Almighty, has required atonement. (N.B.: The lesson ought to be clear and plain to any reader.)

20b …he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Notice that now is the time that the scapegoat, the live goat, receives its reward. It seems incredible to “modern” people, I’m sure, but after all of this sacrifice, all of this washing and dressing and going in and going out and sprinkling of blood and all of that, the goat that is left alive now has all of the sins of Israel laid upon it, and it is taken away to fend for itself, “in the wilderness”. The point is that the sin has not been destroyed, eradicated, has not been forgotten by God, is still a reality, even after atonement has been made. The live goat must still leave the camp, and go into the wilderness, never to be seen again, probably to die. Notice as well that the goat receives the sin of Israel in public, outside the Tabernacle enclosure, with witnesses observing. But even now, not everything is finished, for “life goes on”.

23 “Then Aaron is to go into the tent of meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. 24 He shall bathe himself with water in the sanctuary area and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.

The activities of the Day of Atonement are, for all intents and purposes, completed once the High Priest divests himself of the sacred garments, washes once more, and dons his usual clothing. He must still sacrifice both for himself and for the people! Was there no purpose for all of that preparation, all of that choosing of animals that were perfect, the rituals? Of course there was a purpose, but there is also a deeper truth in play.

26 “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.

This is part of that deeper truth. The handler who has taken the live goat away is now unclean and cannot re-enter the camp of Israel before he cleanses himself and his clothing. Why is he not clean? He has followed the formula, the ritual, done the Lord’s bidding, but still is required to make himself clean? My idea is that he has handled the goat who received the sins of Israel, and has himself been made unclean by that handling. But that is not all.

27 The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up. 28 The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.

The remains of the young bull and the sacrificed goat must also be destroyed by fire, and that “outside the camp”, and the one who performs this holy service must likewise become clean again before he may return. The bull, the goat, and the one who burns them, have all performed a sacred service and duty during all of this, and they are still to be destroyed or cleansed. Sin has tainted the bodies of all concerned, and the remainder must be cleansed, in the one case by fire, in the other with water.

Then comes the final exclamation point upon the whole thing:

29 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you— 30 because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. 31 It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. 32 The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments 33 and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community.

We now have an ordinance for Israel that is to last for all time. The Day of Atonement is established, along with the rules for that day, and the priestly line of succession is defined. Furthermore, the text reiterates the reason for the Day of Atonement once more.

34 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” And it was done, as the Lord commanded Moses.

To finalize everything, the text then repeats itself, though with fewer words.

All of which leads one to ask about the idea of “secret sin”, the sin that supposedly “hurts no one but the sinner”. Can there be such a thing as a sin, or sinfulness itself, that does not infect all of Creation? In light of Leviticus, chapter sixteen, I would have to answer in the negative.

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CC BY 4.0 Symbols in the Day of Atonement by Dennis Glover is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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