What is Atonement? (Leviticus 16)

“I was feeling insecure,” sings John Lennon.  “You might not love me anymore…Oh I didn’t mean to hurt you, I’m sorry that I made you cry.  Oh my I didn’t want to hurt you; I’m just a jealous guy.”  Regardless of motivation—jealousy, pride, what have you—guilt is a universally human emotion.  Mark Twain once quipped that “man is the only animal that blushes.  Or needs to.”

Guilt and shame comprise what psychologists call “moral emotions.”  They represent negative evaluations of self in response to embarrassing situations or—perhaps more often—in response to the violation of social or moral codes.   What is the difference between guilt and shame?  In a 2007 article for The Annual Review of Psychology, guilt and shame are distinguished by three criteria:

  • The nature of the offense. As we’ve noted in the past, some “rules” are cultural in nature.  So some social violations may elicit shame without guilt.  But other rules appear to be universal in nature—appearing in a wide variety of cultures and traditions.  Could it be that maybe God’s laws are indeed universal?
  • Guilt tends to focus on one’s own self-evaluation (“did I do something wrong?”). Shame tends to focus on the evaluation of others (“how many people saw what I did?”).
  • Guilt tends to focus on the behavior (“I did something bad”). Shame tends to focus on the self (“I am bad”).

All of this is simply contemporary research (re-)stating what God’s word takes as obvious: that there are standards and—if violated—they can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.  But rather than shame being elicited by the evaluation of self or others, our shame runs much deeper.  Why?  Because Christianity insists that we stand guilty before an infinitely good and righteous God.

In Hebrews 9:22 we are told that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  The writer is speaking of something called atonement—the way that God deals with man’s sin.  But to fully understand this we have to strip back some of the layers of culture and theology to understand what this word meant to the first century people.


The word atonement comes from the words “at” and the Middle-English word “(one)ment.”  The word—meaning “to make one” helps us picture the healing of the relationship between man and God.

But as you might have guessed, the word has deeper meaning when looked at in its original Hebrew forms.  The Hebrew kippur can have a range of meanings—such as “cover over” or even a “ransom payment.”  But in relation to sin both of these definitions fall short.  The word’s Akkadian roots are often used to mean “to wipe away,” “to purge” or “to cleanse.”  When the word is used for “forgive,” it is paired with the related Hebrew word “to blot out” (cf. Exodus 32:32).  Therefore to “atone” means “to wipe away,” or “to make clean.”

Ever notice the deep connection we make with guilt and “dirt?”  When we do something wrong, we feel “dirty.”  When we are violated and ashamed, we likewise feel “unclean” or “contaminated.”  If you’ll pardon the extreme example, it’s no accident that a rape victim’s first impulse is to take a shower.  Sin leaves us the same way—in need of purity, in need of atonement.

For Israel, this atonement was symbolized in the elaborate system of sacrifices that came to define the people of God.  And every year the people would corporately celebrate The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  The Day of Atonement can essentially be broken down into three distinct components: (1) purification for the priest, (2) the sacrifice of a goat, and (3) the driving away of a goat.


Recall that the Temple/Tabernacle was the one place where God’s presence was understood to uniquely reside.  This meant that priests would typically not enter into the holiest place behind the curtain, for fear that such audacity would result in a swift death.

The Day of Atonement was a bit different.  In Leviticus 16, we read that on this day one priest would represent the nation by performing these priestly duties:

3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.  He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. (Leviticus 16:3-5)

11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. (Leviticus 16:11-14)

You understand what’s happening so far, right?  All of this was simply to ensure that the priest was worthy to perform the priestly work on behalf of the people.  Why?  Because only a worthy priest could hope to offer an acceptable sacrifice before God.


Notice in verse 5 that two goats were involved.  The first would be killed:

15  “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. (Leviticus 16:15-19)

What’s happening here?  The blood of the sacrifice represented the eradication of the people’s guilt.  The blood re-consecrated a holy place that had been defiled by sin.

In Christian theology, we might see this as akin to something called propitiation.  It most literally means “to make favorable.”  In context it means that God—though deservedly angry over your sin and mine—has been appeased by the shedding of blood.  Our guilt has been absolved.


What about the second goat?

20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22)

What’s going on here?  By going into the wilderness, this second goat represented the removal of the people’s shame.  So powerful was this image that the people feared the goat would return (!).  To solve this problem, a series of volunteers waited in the wilderness to drive the goat onward, eventually sending the goat over a cliff.  And here’s where it gets interesting: according to ancient Jewish teachers, they would soak two strips of cloth in blood.  One strip they kept in their camp; the other they tied to the goat’s tail.  It was said that when the goat went over the cliff, the strip of cloth at the camp would go from being stained blood-red to pure white.  The ancient peoples understood the significance quite well: that this action literally purified the stains on the human soul.

In contemporary theology we call this “expiation.”  It’s the act of being made clean before God.  And here’s why it matters for modern psychology: just as guilt deals with actions and shame deals with attitudes, so too does propitiation deal with guilt before God while expiation helps us deal with the shame we feel over our own sinfulness.


In Zechariah 3, Zechariah describes a vision of what appears to be the Day of Atonement.  Recall that on that day the high priest would have to adorn special holy garments.  In Zechariah’s time, priests were sequestered for a week to prevent them from coming into contact with anything unclean so that they could perform the ceremony undefiled.  There was even a set of ritual bathings, after which time the priest would emerge wearing pure white robes.

But Zechariah witnesses the high priest Joshua wearing “filthy robes” (Zechariah 3:3).  The original Hebrew seems to suggest that he is actually covered in excrement.  He is expected to be clean, to bring purity to the nation.  But in God’s eyes, all the rituals and duties do not truly cleanse the stain.

We need a true and better high priest.  We need a true and better Joshua.

You might already know that “Joshua” is the English version of the Hebrew Ye’shua.  And the Greek version?  Iesous.  Jesus.  Jesus is the true and better Joshua.  He is the true and better high priest who brings a true and better sacrifice—his own flesh and blood.  And through the cross we find our guilt eradicated and our shame wiped away.  Our consciences, like our moral records, can be made clean again.

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