What is the Day of Atonement, and how was it kept?

Background of the Day of Atonement  (Exodus 30:1-10)

The first reference to the Day of Atonement comes in the Book of Exodus, chapter 30. The first nine verses detail the plans for the Altar of Incense. There is then a special word of warning, followed by a brief reference to the Day of Atonement: “You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a libation on it. And Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD” (Exod. 30:9-10).

It is noteworthy that in this passage, the warning about offering “strange incense” immediately precedes reference to the Day of Atonement, just as Leviticus 16 introduces the instructions concerning the offerings by referring to the death of Nadab and Abihu, who were smitten of God for offering “strange fire” (cf. Lev. 10:1).

Before we discuss the significance of some of the events of the Day of Atonement, let us pause to “walk through” the entire ceremony which is outlined in Leviticus chapter 16. This will enable us to get a feel for the ceremony as a whole, before we move to an examination of its parts.

From all appearances, the rituals outlined in our text do not begin the day’s activities for Aaron, but come after the exercise of some of his regular duties. The day would seem to begin as usual with the offering of the morning sacrifice, the burnt offering of a one year old lamb (cf. Exod. 29:38-42; Num. 28:3-6). After these duties were performed, the High Priest would commence the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, as prescribed in our text:

(1) Aaron was to take off his normal priestly garments, wash, and then put on the special garments which were prescribed for the sacrifices which took him into the holy of holies (v. 4; cf. Exod. 28; 39).

(2) Aaron secured the necessary sacrificial animals: a bull for his own sin offering and two male goats for the people’s sin offering; two rams, one for Aaron’s and the other for the people’s burnt offering (vv. 3, 5).

(3) Aaron slaughtered the bull for his own sin offering (vv. 6, 11).

(4) Before entering into the Holy of Holies with the blood of the bull, Aaron had to create a “cloud” of incense in the Holy of Holies, covering the mercy seat, to “veil” the glory of God so that he could enter in (vv. 12-13). The best approximation to this in my experience is what a bee-keeper does, smoking the hive of the bees, before he begins to remove the honey. In the case of Aaron, he was to offer only the prescribed incense so as to create an obscuring veil of smoke, thus dimming the glory of God’s presence and sparing his life.

(5) Aaron then took some of the blood of the bull and sprinkled it on the mercy seat seven times (v. 14).

(6) Lots were then cast for the two goats, to determine which would be slaughtered and which would be driven away (vv. 7-8).

(7) The goat for slaughter, the goat of the people’s sin offering, was sacrificed, and its blood was taken into the Holy of Holies and applied to the mercy seat, as the bull’s blood had been (v. 15).

(8) Cleansing was then made for the holy place (v. 16), seemingly by the sprinkling of the blood of both the bull and the goat. The atonement of the holy place is done alone, without anyone present to help, or to watch (v. 17).

(9) Next, outside the tent, Aaron was to make atonement for the altar of burnt offering, using, it would seem, the blood of both the bull and the goat (vv. 18-19).

(10) Now the second goat, the one which was kept alive, had the sins of the nation symbolically laid on its head, and was driven from the camp to a desolate place, from which it must never return (vv. 20-22).

(11) Aaron then entered the tent of meeting, removed his linen garments, washed, and put on his normal priestly garments

(12) The burnt offerings of rams, one for Aaron and his family and the other for the people, was now offered (v. 24)

(13) The earlier sacrifices of the bull and the goat were completed. The fat of the sin offering was burned on the altar (v. 25), and the remains of the bull and the goat were taken outside the camp, where they were burned (v. 27).

(14) Those who had been rendered unclean by handling the animals on which the sins of Aaron or the people were laid were to wash themselves and then return to camp (vv. 26, 28).

Observations Concerning the Day of Atonement

There are several features of the Day of Atonement which are worthy of our attention, which prepare us to consider the meaning of this text. Let us briefly consider each of these.

(1) God’s instructions to Aaron concerning the offerings of the Day of Atonement begins with a reminder of the death of his two sons, as recorded in chapter 10. This serves as a chronological clue, indicating that the commandments given here must have come shortly after the death of Aaron’s sons. There is also the logical connection. Aaron’s sons died while in the tabernacle, specifically while they were burning incense. In the course of Aaron’s duties on the Day of Atonement, he too will offer incense. This note thus serves to underscore the importance of Aaron’s very meticulous obedience to these instructions.

(2) The priestly garb which Aaron was to wear on this one occasion was very different from that which he normally wore in the course of his duties.

Beautiful colored materials, intricate embroidery, gold and jewelry made him look like a king. On the day of atonement he looked more like a slave. His outfit consisted of four simple garments in white linen, even plainer than the vestments of the ordinary priest (Exod. 39:27-29) … On this one day the high priest enters the ‘other world,’ into the very presence of God. He must therefore dress as befits the occasion. Among his fellow men his dignity as the great mediator between man and God is unsurpassed, and his splendid clothes draw attention to the glory of his office. But in the presence of God even the high priest is stripped of all honor: he becomes simply the servant of the King of kings, whose true status is portrayed in the simplicity of his dress. Ezekiel (9:2-3, 11; 10:2, 6-7) and Daniel (10:5; 12:6-7) describe angels as dressed in linen, while Rev. 19:8 portrays the saints in heaven as wearing similar clothes.

In the course of his daily sacrifices, Aaron, the High Priest, represented God, and thus his garments were of great beauty and splendor. But when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in performing the atoning ritual of the Day of Atonement, he went before God in simplicity and humility. One cannot help but think of the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel, where our Lord took off His garments, and stripped down to the garb of a slave, so as to cleanse His disciples. On both these occasions (John 13 and the Day of Atonement) there is a symbolic representation of the kenosis, the setting aside of our Lord’s glory and beauty, so that the work of atonement could be accomplished (cf. Phil. 2:5-8).

(3) The ceremony of Aaron’s offering the bull for his sins and his family (especially among whom were the priests) is similar to that described in 4:3-12, but is also different. In both offerings, a bull is sacrificed, and in the same way. In chapter 4, the blood of the bull is sprinkled only on the horns of the altar of incense, but in chapter 16 the blood is also sprinkled on the mercy seat itself. The offering of the Day of Atonement is more extensive than the normal offering of the priest.

(4) The ceremony of offering the bull in chapter 16 is also similar to, yet different from, the offering of the bull which was a part of the ordination of Aaron and his sons. In this case, too, the offering on the Day of Atonement was similar to the former offering, but was greater in that there was an entrance into the Holy of Holies.

(5) The sin offering for the people is both unique and compound. With the exception of the two birds (Lev. 14:3-9, 49-53), there is no other sacrifice quite like this, which involves both a dying and a living animal. There has been a great deal of discussion as to the term “Azazel,” associated with the goat which lives, but there is no totally satisfactory answer, and the discussion is hardly needed to understand the ritual.

(6) The Day of Atonement is the cleansing of a place and of a people. I have always had a certain mental picture of the Day of Atonement, and I have just now discovered how partial and incomplete it was. I thought that the sole purpose of this annual sacrifice was to cleanse the people from their sins. I have always visualized individual Israelites waiting anxiously outside the tent, wondering if Aaron would return, if the sacrifice he offered would be accepted, and if penalty for sins of the past year would be delayed yet longer. This is one of the things which the Day of Atonement accomplished for the people. (Lev. 16:30). Even more emphatic in this chapter is the fact that the Day of Atonement was provided by God to cleanse His holy dwelling place, the Tabernacle, and the holy things associated with it. That for which atonement is made is that with which God came in contact, that which had become defiled over the past year, due to the sins of the people and their priests (Lev. 16:16). So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, and make atonement for the holy sanctuary; and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly (Lev. 16:32-33). The issue at stake is whether or not God will continue to abide within the camp, in the midst of His people. The uncleanness of the people contaminated the dwelling place of God, and the Day of Atonement was provided to remove these sins. The most dreaded evil for Israel was the absence of God’s presence in the midst of the people. This is that for which Moses eloquently and passionately pleaded, after the apostasy of the nation, when they worshipped the golden calf (Exod. 33-34). God promised to dwell with His people, and the Tabernacle, along with the priestly system and the offerings was the provision for Him to do so. Their highest use was seen on the Day of Atonement.

(7) The Day of Atonement foreshadowed and anticipated a greater, permanent cleansing of God’s people and of His dwelling place, which was to be accomplished by a better priest, who offered a better sacrifice. I believe, for example, that both Israel’s goats for her sin offering symbolize the death of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, in the years to come. The dying goat signifies the death which Christ died, as did the other sacrificial animals. The goat which is driven away from the camp, into the wilderness, never to return, symbolizes the even greater agony of our Lord, His separation from the Father, due to the fact that the sins of all men were borne by Him. This is the agony which caused Him to agonize in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the one Old Testament sacrifice which reflects one of the most gruesome aspects of our Lord’s atoning work as our substitute.

The New Testament, particularly the Book of Hebrews, stresses the superiority of the death of our Lord, in contrast to the Old Testament sacrifices, of which those of the Day of Atonement are most prominent. Our text clearly indicates the superiority of the person of Christ to Aaron. Aaron was a sinner, if we had not already figured this out (cf. Exod. 32). Our Lord, Christ, was (and is ) sinless. He did not need to make an offering for Himself.