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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Leviticus 16

Verse 1

1. And the Lord spake unto Moses. A copious description is here given of what we have recently adverted to cursorily, as it were, i.e., the solemn atonement which was yearly made in the seventh month; for when Moses was instructing them as to what sacrifices were to be offered on each of the festivals, he expressly excepted, though only in a single word, this sacrifice, where he spoke of the day of atonement itself, on which they afflicted their souls. Now, therefore, a clear and distinct exposition of it is separately given. For although at other seasons of the year also both their public and private sins were expiated, and for this purpose availed the daily sacrifices, still this more solemn rite was meant to arouse the people’s minds, that they might more earnestly apply themselves all the year through to the diligent seeking for pardon and remission. In order, then, that they might be more anxious to propitiate God, one atonement was performed at the end of the year which might ratify all the others. But, that they might more diligently observe what is commanded, Moses makes mention of the time in which the Law was given, viz., when Nadab and Abihu were put to death by God, after they had rashly defiled the altar by their negligence.

Verse 2

2. Speak unto Aaron. The sum of the law is, that the priest should not frequently enter the inner sanctuary, but only once a year, i.e., on the feast of the atonement, in the month of September. The cause of this was, lest a more frequent entrance of it should produce indifference; for if he had entered it promiscuously at every sacrifice, no small part of the reverence due to it would have been lost. The ordinary sprinkling of the altar was sufficient to testify the reconciliation; but this annual ceremony more greatly influenced the people’s minds. Again, by this sacrifice, which they saw only once at the end of the year, the one and perpetual sacrifice offered by God’s Son was more clearly represented. Therefore the Apostle elegantly alludes to this ceremony in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it is said that by the annual entrance of the high priest the Holy Ghost signified,

"that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing,” (Hebrews 9:8;)

and a little further on he adds, that after Christ the true Priest had come,

"he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” (Hebrews 9:11.)

Thus the year, in the ancient type, was a symbol of the one offering, so that believers might understand that the sacrifice, whereby God was to be propitiated, was not to be often repeated. That God may inspire greater fear, and preserve the priests from carelessness, He proclaims that His glory should appear in the cloud in that part of the sanctuary where was the mercy seat; for we know that the sign was given from hence to the Israelites, when the camp was to be moved, or when they were to remain stationary. But this testimony of God’s presence should have justly moved the priests to greater care and attention; and hence we may now learn, that the closer God’s majesty manifests itself, the more anxiously should we beware, lest through our thoughtlessness we should give any mark of contempt, but that we should testify our submission with becoming humility and modesty.

Verse 3

3. Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place. The rites and formality are now described; first, that Aaron should put on the holy garments, and wash his person; secondly, that he should offer a bullock and ram for a burnt-offering; thirdly, that he should take two goats from the people, one of which should be sent away alive, and the other slain in sacrifice. We have stated elsewhere why the priests were to be dressed in garments different from others, since he who is the mediator between God and men should be free from all impurity and stain; and since no mortal could truly supply this, a type was substituted in place of the reality, from whence believers might learn that another Mediator was to be expected; because the dignity of the sons of Aaron was only typical, and not true and substantial. For whenever the priest stripped himself of his own garments, and assumed those which were holy and separated from common use, it was equivalent to declaring openly that he represented another person. But if this symbol were not sufficient, the ablution again taught that none of the sons of Aaron was the genuine propitiator; for how could he purify others, who himself required purification, and made open confession of his uncleanness? A third symbol also was added; for he who by a sacrifice of his own atoned for himself and his house, how was he capable of meriting God’s favor for others? Thus then the holy fathers were reminded, that under the image of a mortal man, another Mediator was promised, who, for the reconciliation of the human race, should present Himself before God with perfect and more than angelical purity. Besides, in the person of the priest there was exhibited to the people a spectacle of the corruption whereby the whole human race is defiled, so as to be abominable to God; for if the priest, both chosen by God, and graced with the sacred unction, was still unworthy on the score of his uncleanness to come near the altar, what dignity could be discoverable in the people? And hence to us now-a-days also very useful instruction is derived; viz., that when the question arises how God is to be propitiated, we are not to look this way and that way; since out of Christ there is no purity and innocence which can satisfy the justice of God.

Verse 7

7. And he shall take the two goats. A twofold mode of expiation is here presented to us; for one of the two goats was offered in sacrifice according to the provisions of the Law, the other was sent away to be an outcast, or offscouring ( κάθαρμα vel περίψημα (242)) The fulfillment of both figures, however, was manifested in Christ, since He was both the Lamb of God, whose offering blotted out the sins of the world, and, that He might be as an offscouring, ( κάθαρμα ,) His comeliness was destroyed, and He was rejected of men. A more subtle speculation might indeed be advanced, viz., that after the goat was presented, its sending away was a type of the resurrection of Christ; as if the slaying of the one goat testified that the satisfaction for sins was to be sought in the death of Christ; whilst the preservation and dismissal of the other shewed, that after Christ had been offered for sin, and had borne the curse of men, He still remained alive. I embrace, however, what is more simple and certain, and am satisfied with that; i.e., that the goat which departed alive and free, was an atonement, (243) that by its departure and flight the people might be assured that their sins were put away and vanished. This was the only expiatory sacrifice in the Law without blood; nor does this contradict the statement of the Apostle, for since two goats were offered together, it was enough that the death of one should take place, and that its blood should be shed for expiation; for the lot was not cast until both goats had been brought to the door of the tabernacle; and thus although the priest presented one of them alive “to make an atonement with him,” as Moses expressly says, yet God was not propitiated without blood, since the efficacy of the expiation depended on the sacrifice of the other goat. As to the word Azazel, (244) although commentators differ, I doubt not but that it designates the place to which the scape-goat was driven. It is certainly a compound word, equivalent to “the departure of the goat,” which the Greeks have translated, whether properly or not I cannot say, ἀποπομπαῖον I am afraid that the expiation is decidedly too subtle which some interpreters give, that the goat was so called as “the repeller of evils,” just as the Gentiles (245) invented certain gods, called ἀλεξικάκους. What I have said agrees best with the departure of the goat; although I differ from the Jews, who conceive that this place was contiguous to Mount Sinai; as if the lot for Azazel were not cast every year, when the people were very far away from Mount Sinai. Let it suffice, then, that some solitary and most uninhabitable spot was chosen whither the goat should be driven, lest the curse of God should rest upon the people.

(242) The two Greek words here used are the same as those employed in 1 Corinthians 4:13 ως περικαθάρματα (or, with others, ὡσπερεὶ καθάρματα) τῦ κόσμυ ἐγενήθημεν, πάντων περίψημα ἕως ἄρτι· which our A. V. translates, “we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.” Commentators seem to be agreed that they are citative by St. Paul of the Hebrew words in Lamentations 3:45, which A.V. translates “offscouring and refuse.” C. ( Comment. on Cor., vol. 1, p. 1650 says that κάθαρμα “denotes a man who, by public execrations is devoted, with the view to the cleansing of a city, etc."

(243) “ Piaculum.” — Lat. “ Une beste maudite.” — Fr.

(244) C. adopts the opinion of S. M. in regarding Azazel as the name of a place. Most lexicographers agree that, עזאזל cannot well mean anything else than what is its necessary translation, if divided thus עז אזל, viz., the goat departing. — W

(245) Thus Jupiter is addressed: —

Δῶρον ἀλεξικάκοιο Διὸς — Orph. Λίθικα, i.

and Lactantius says, that an image of Apollonius was worshipped at Ephesus, “ sub Herculis Alexieaci nomine constitutum.” — De Just. v. 3.

Verse 12

12. And he shall take a censer full. Before he takes the blood into the sanctuary, (the priest) is commanded to offer incense. There was, as we have seen, an altar of incense, on which the priest burnt it, but without the veil; but now he is ordered to go within the veil, to make (246) an incense-offering in the very holy of holies. But it is worth noticing, that is said that the cloud of the incense should cover the mercy-seat — that the priest die not; for by this sign it was shewn how formidable is God’s majesty, the sight of which is fatal even to the priest; that all might learn to tremble at it, and to prostrate themselves as suppliants before Him; and again, that all audacity and temerity might be repressed. But it is uncertain whether he killed together the bullock for himself and the goat for the people, or whether, after he had sprinkled the sanctuary with his own offering, he killed the goat separately. Moses indeed seems to mark this distinct order in the words he uses; for after having spoken of the first sprinkling, he immediately adds, “Then shall he kill the goat of the sin-offering:” but since the narrative of Moses is not always consecutive, and it is a matter of little importance, let the reader choose which he pleases.

(246) “ Pour faire ce perfum exquis et solennel :” to make the exquisite and solemn incense-offering. — Fr.

Verse 16

16. And he shall make an atonement for the holy place. The cleansing of the sanctuary might seem absurd, as if it were in man’s power to pollute what God Himself had consecrated; for we know that God remains true, although all’ the world be unholy, and consequently that whatever God has appointed changes not its nature through the sins of men. Yet, if no contagion from men’s sins had infected the tabernacle, this cleansing would have been superfluous. But although the sanctuary in itself may have contracted no defilement from the guilt of the people, still, in regard to the sin and guilt of the people themselves, it is justly accounted unclean. And thus sin is made more exceeding sinful, inasmuch as men, even though their intention be to serve God, profane His sacred name, if they do so carelessly or irreverently. It was at that time a detestable sacrilege in all to defile the altar and sanctuary of God; and Moses convicts the Israelites of this sacrilege when He commands the sanctuary to be cleansed. Moreover, let us learn that men may so contaminate the sacred things of God as that their nature should still remain unaltered and their dignity inviolate. Wherefore Moses expressly states that the sanctuary is cleansed not from its own uncleanness, but from that of the children of Israel. We must now apply the substance of this type to our own use. By Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God appears to us in his only-begotten Son: these are the pledges of our holiness; yet such is our corruption that we never cease from profaning, as far as in us lies, these instruments of the Spirit whereby God sanctifies us. Since, however, we have now no victims to kill, we must mourn and humbly pray that Christ, by the sprinkling of His blood, may blot out and cleanse these defilements of ours, by which Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are polluted. The reason of the purification is also to be observed, viz., because the tabernacle “dwelleth among them in the midst of their uncleanness;” (247) by which words Moses signifies that men are so polluted and full of corruptions that they contaminate all that is holy without the intervention of a means of purification; for he takes it for granted that men cannot but bring some impurity with them. What he had said of the inner sanctuary he extends to the altar and the whole of the tabernacle.

(247) Margin, A.V.

Verse 17

17. And there shall be no man. The driving away of all men from approaching the tabernacle during the act of atonement is a sort of punishment by temporary banishment, that they may perceive themselves to be driven from God’s face, whilst the place is purified which had been defiled by their sins. This was a melancholy sight, when all these for whose sake it was erected were obliged to desert it; but in this way they were reminded that every part and particle of our salvation depends on God’s mercy only, when they saw themselves excluded from the remedy designed for obtaining pardon, unless a new pardon should come to their aid, since they had fallen away from the hope of reconciliation.

Verse 20

20. And when he hath made an end of reconciling. The mode of expiation with the other goat is now more clearly explained, viz., that it should be placed before God, and that the priest should lay his hands on its head, and confess the sins of the people, so that he may throw the curse on the goat itself. This, as I have said, was the only bloodless ( ἀναίματον) sacrifice; yet it is expressly called an “offering,” (248) with reference, however, to the slaying of the former goat, and was, therefore, as to its efficacy for propitiation, by no means to be separated from it. It was by no means reasonable that an innocent animal should be substituted in the place of men, to be exposed to the curse of God, except that believers might learn that they were in no wise competent to bear His judgment, nor could be delivered from it otherwise than by the transfer of their guilt and crime. For, since men feel that they are altogether overwhelmed by the wrath of God, which impends over them all, they vainly endeavor to lighten or shake off in various ways this intolerable burden; for no absolution is to be hoped for save by the interposition of a satisfaction; and it is not lawful to obtrude this according to man’s fancy, or, in their foolish arrogance, to seek in themselves for the price whereby their sins may be compensated for. Another means, therefore, of making atonement to God was revealed when Christ, “being made a curse for us,” transferred to Himself the sins which alienated men from God. (2 Corinthians 5:19; Galatians 3:13.) The confession tended to humiliate the people, and thus acted as a stimulus to sincere repentance; since “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,” (Psalms 51:17;) nor is it fit that any but the prostrate should be lifted up by God’s mercy, nor that any but those who voluntarily condemn themselves should be absolved. The accumulation of words tends to this, “all the iniquities, all their transgressions, all their sins,” that believers may not lightly only and as, a mere act of duty acknowledge themselves guilty before God, but rather that they should groan under the weight, of their guilt. Since now in Christ no special day in the year is prescribed in which the Church should confess its sins in a solemn ceremony, let believers learn, whenever they meet together in God’s name, humbly to submit themselves to voluntary self-condemnation, and to pray for pardon, as if the Spirit of God dictated a formulary for them; and so let each in private: conform himself to this rule.

(248) C. refers to his own translation, “ tunc offeret hircum vivum.” Lorinus in loco says, “The Greek προσάξει signifies he shall bring or lead near, ( offeret vel adducet ) Although הקריב hikriub, is not infrequently rendered to offer.

Verse 26

26. And he that let the goat go. Since this goat was the outcast ( κάθαπμα) of God’s wrath, and devoted to His curse, he who led it away is commanded to wash his person and his clothes, as if he were a partaker in its defilement. By this symbol the faithful were reminded how very detestable is their iniquity, so that they might, be affected with increasing dread, whenever they considered what they deserved. For when they saw a man forbidden to enter the camp because he was polluted by simply touching the goat, they must needs reflect how much wider was the alienation between God and themselves, when they bore upon them an uncleanness not contracted elsewhere, but procured by their own sin. The same may be said of him who burned the skin, the flesh, and the dung of the bullock and the goat. We have elsewhere seen that these remnants were carried out of the camp in token of abomination. And on this head Christ’s inestimable love towards us shines more brightly, who did not disdain to go out of the city that He might be made an outcast ( rejectamentum) for us, and might undergo the curse due to us.

Verse 29

29. And this shall be a statute for ever. This day of public atonement is now finally mentioned in express terms, and the affliction of souls, of which fuller notice is taken in chap. 23, is touched upon, that they may more diligently exercise themselves in more serious penitential meditations, nor doubt that they are truly purged before God; and yet in a sacramental manner, viz., that the external ceremony might be a most unmistakable sign of that atonement, whereby, in the fullness of time, they were to be reconciled to God. Wherefore Moses states at some length that this was to be the peculiar office of the priest; and by this eulogy exalts the grace of the coming Mediator, so that He may direct the minds of believers to Him alone.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Leviticus 16". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/leviticus-16.html. 1840-57.