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.

Being Made the Scapegoat (Leviticus 16:20-34)

In this early portion of the “cross words” series, we have been talking about propitiation and atonement. I earlier wrote that I would bet that the word “propitiation” is not one that any of you use during normal daily conversation. However, our study today involves a word that is very commonly used, though I’d venture that the vast majority of people have no idea whatsoever that it comes from the Bible and from the book of Leviticus.

When we use the term scapegoat, we are usually saying that someone is having the blame for something quite unjustly placed upon them, rather than upon the person or people who should properly bear it. For example, I might use the term to say, “Tony Romo has become the scapegoat for the failure of the Dallas Cowboys in recent years.”  Though I am only very marginally a fan of football and of the Cowboys, whenever I watch them play, the poor guy is running for his life because the offensive line totally stinks! Okay – all you Ravens, Redskins, and Steelers fans – don’t get lost in the illustration … you get the point.

So, on the Day of Atonement there were two goats. Lots were cast, and one was chosen to be slain for the blood sprinkling we read about yesterday. The second goat had the high priest lay both hands on its head and confess the sins of the people onto it. Then, a cross country runner (possibly from the Tribe of Randy?) was given the task of taking the goat out to a distant and remote place of the wilderness and leaving it there. This symbolized the removal of sin from the nation.

The rest of the text today talks about the details of what is to become of the carcasses of the animals given for sacrifice. As well, there are details about the washing and cleansing of the priest, the scapegoat runner, and the guy who got rid of the carcasses by taking them outside the camp.

The passage also details that this annual day was to be a Sabbath rest – a time very much set aside by everyone. This ceremony is twice said to be remembered as a lasting ordinance in the nation. For those of you who recently tracked with us through the Deuteronomy “Revive” series, you will recall how many times Moses said that the Israelites were to remember and teach the rising generations about the Lord and His deeds. In like manner, this day was to have special significance that would be evident to all – especially the young. And it was to be forever celebrated and observed.

In our teaching series, we have introduced a second word – expiation – which is closely connected to the first word propitiation. You might think of both of them as speaking of satisfaction; but whereas propitiation is about the satisfaction achieved by God’s wrath being averted, expiation is the satisfaction because of the payment or taking away of sin. Propitiation is Godward and is the first goat, whereas expiation is manward and is the second goat. See, you can handle these big words! Maybe through them around in the office a bit this week!

Leviticus 16

20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, 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.

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.

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. 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.

29 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves[c] 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.

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.

Remember the Good Friday Service at 7:00 – a study of the cross word “Atonement”

More words for the puzzle:

Mercy – This word is closely connected to all that we have talked about so far in terms of propitiation / satisfaction / the mercy seat on the top of the ark. It relates to the placation of God’s anger and the averting of His wrath that toward us results in mercy extended.

Favor – Similar to above, favor is the extension of grace and mercy where wrath is deserved.

puzzle day 8

Blood Splattered all over the Place! (Leviticus 16:11-19)

I am not a hunter. I am not against it at all, and several of my boys are very much into the sport. I have a very conflicted relationship with the deer population. On one hand I see them as beautiful creatures of God’s creation; but on the other hand, given the 10+ family incidents of car collisions with these overgrown rodents, I applaud all efforts at herd control! My issue for not taking personal revenge against them with a Mossberg Deer Thugs .30-06 Bolt Action Rifle with Scope is that I don’t want to deal with the blood and guts! Gross! Major Yuck! That is disgusting!blood_spatter

So, I’d probably not do well as a priest in the Levitical system in Israel. There was blood all over the place … regular sacrifices and hunks of meat and innards, etc. Think also about the smells! And did I mention yet?… blood everywhere! Everything about the Old Testament system of sacrifice pictured the terrible cost of sin, along with the costly and bloody price of redemption.

Why blood? Why sacrifice? Why the innocent for the guilty? Well, it all goes back to the beginning. Adam and Eve needed to be clothed to cover their nakedness and sin. Where did the skins come from? Yes, from innocent animals – slain to provide cover for the guilty sinners. A principle was established – a theme was set that would carry throughout Scripture and find descriptive fulfillment in a series of “cross words.”

Today’s reading gives details as to the role of the High Priest on the annual Day of Atonement – the biggest day of the year in terms of sin being paid for by sacrifice. Aaron was to come into the most holy place and into the presence of the ark – over which was the Shekinah glory of the Lord that was the very presence of God amongst His people.

When Aaron entered behind the curtain the first time, he was to take a censor of hot coals (from the altar upon which the sacrifices were made outside the tent) and put incense upon it – the result being that this would make a cloud of smoke which would hide the Shekinah glory from being seen by Aaron, in which event he would die. And he was also to take blood from a slain bull and sprinkle it on the atonement cover of the ark. The idea here is that the blood provided a symbolic covering for debt of the broken law, which was contained in the ark.

On the next trip into the most holy place, Aaron was to take blood from the goat upon which the lot had fallen to be slain. Again the blood was sprinkled on behalf of the nation to provide an atonement for sin. As well, Aaron would put blood upon the various furnishings of the tabernacle structure and even the brazen altar – again, as a cleansing cover for sin.

This entire scene is ripe with significance and meaning that would find ultimate fulfillment in the work of Christ. We will go to Hebrews to detail that for Thursday and Friday devotionals … after reading and commenting upon the scapegoat tomorrow.

No matter how you look at it, paying for sin is costly. I have light-heartedly spoken of blood at the top of these thoughts today. But as we end, let us be much sobered by our own sin that has contributed to the price of our own individual redemption. As Peter wrote:  For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors,but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.

Leviticus 16

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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

Two more “cross words” for the puzzle:

Judgment – God’s justice demands that He judge sin. It cannot be in His presence. We need to be perfect to be with God – to have righteousness … which we don’t have. But we may gain Christ’s righteousness – the one who took the judgment of God on our behalf.

Blood – Life is in the blood, and the shedding of blood was the giving of life. Without the shedding of blood (the Scriptures say) there is no remission of sin.

puzzle day 7

No Pressure, Just Don’t Mess Up! (Leviticus 16:1-10)

Any of the several hundred great kids that ran cross country for me at Williamsport High School can tell you that the title today is my famous final word to them on the starting line of every race. I would say, “OK, remember now, no pressure – just don’t mess up” and then I’d immediately turn around and walk away. It was meant to communicate that while this was indeed a serious athletic event, we should also have fun while competing (and winning!).

Moses’ brother Aaron – the high priest for the nation of Israel – received pretty much the same message from God … although there was no humor whatsoever attached to it.

In today’s reading, we have laid out the prescription for the sacred annual event in Israel known as “The Day of Atonement” (listed on our calendars as Yom Kippur). To cover this chapter 16, we will use three days of readings – today gives the basic overview of it, with the following verses over the next two days detailing the precise activities to be observed.

The first verse gives a historical context as to exactly when this revelation came to Moses – to be passed along to Aaron. It was (presumably soon) after the death of two of Aaron’s four sons. This is recorded six chapters earlier in Leviticus 10. It is not exactly clear what Nadab and Abihu did when it says they came before the Lord with “unauthorized fire,” but whatever it was, it is apparent that they should have known better and were not being respectfully accurate about how they were serving. Fire came out from the Lord and killed them on the spot – and Aaron and the two other brothers were essentially told to stay there and not grieve over them at all! All of this happened on day #1 that Aaron and the boys were doing their priestly job.

So – back to our chapter 16 – if you were Aaron, and Moses came to you and said, “The Lord says that you are not to go behind the curtain into the most holy place where resides the ark and the mercy seat whenever you want to” … would you, in light of what you saw happen to your boys, be ready to listen and to apply every detail? And, oh my – there were details.

This ceremony was to occur but once a year; Aaron was to wear certain garments that were clean – and he was not to be stinky himself; Aaron was to prepare a sacrifice for himself and his family, since they were sinners; and Aaron was to secure two goats to make atonement for the sins of the people. We’ll circle back along with the text in the next two readings to go over these details and what they mean.

But today, let me make one main point about this whole scenario. Notice how in the old economy of the Old Covenant that it was a scary sort of “stay away” kind of thing? The picture is of a God who is filled with wrath at sin – one who could only be approached in very precise and prescribed ways. The reason for that is … well … God was angry at sin and could only be approached carefully in specified ways. But then, in the New Testament economy of the New Covenant, the attitude is one that is grace-enriched with an entire open-armed flavor of “Come unto me!”  Why the difference? In a word – “propitiation.”  God has been satisfied by the covering (atonement) for sin that was paid by the blood of Christ. Remember the moment of the death of Christ and what happened?…  The thick curtain in the Temple that separated off the most holy place was ripped open and people could even see into this place that was continuously hidden from sight – representing that the way to God had been opened to all.

Are you getting this? Are you picking up on these “cross words”??  They are important. How about making plans to worship with us this Friday night at 7:00?  We’ll talk about this some more.

16:1 The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the 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.

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

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

Let’s identify two more cross words on the word search puzzle today – again, the final words list and all letters will be available three weeks from today!

Faith – This is “believe” in the sense that you place your “trust” in it. It must have been difficult to have trust/belief/faith that Jesus was the Son of God if you were there seeing him hang on that Roman cross. But there were 500 or more witnesses who could testify to the truth of resurrection – yet, faith remains necessary to apply the Gospel message, being saved by grace through faith.

Hell – All of the great enemies of God are defeated by the cross and the resurrection: Satan, sin, darkness, death … and hell.

puzzle day 6