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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 16

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-2

Introduction to the Day of Atonement legislation 16:1-2

We learn from Leviticus 16:1 that Moses received instructions regarding the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, immediately after the judgment of Nadab and Abihu (ch. 10). Obviously he inserted chapters 11-15 in the chronological narrative for a purpose. He probably did so because of the connection between the clean and unclean distinctions in these chapters and the emphasis on priestly purity that ended with the judgment of Nadab and Abihu (ch. 10). There is also continuity in the emphasis on the importance of holiness when entering the presence of Yahweh (ch. 16).

As usual, God revealed these laws to Moses, not directly to the priests or even the high priest, Aaron (Leviticus 16:2). Moses was the great mediator between God and the Israelites superior even to the high priest. Moses served in the role of a prophet when he did this. Later in Israel’s history, the prophets continued to communicate instructions from God not only to the priests but also to the kings.

Even the high priest was not to enter the presence of God in the holy of holies, symbolized by the cloud over the mercy seat, at any time. If he did, he would die, as Nadab and Abihu did. What follows is instruction about when and how he could enter. The only way anyone could approach God when He manifested Himself on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19) was also as He specified. God was just as holy and demanded just as much reverence when He was dwelling among His people as when He dwelt away from them. Now He dwells within each Christian (John 14:17; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Verses 1-10

1. Introductory information 16:1-10

This section contains a general introduction to what follows in the chapter (Leviticus 16:1-2), information about the animals and priestly dress used in the ceremonies (Leviticus 16:3-5), and an outline of the events of the day (Leviticus 16:6-10).

Verses 1-34

D. The Day of Atonement ch. 16

The sacrifices and offerings that Moses described thus far in the Law were not sufficient to cleanse all the defilements of the people. Much sinfulness and uncleanness still needed removing. Therefore God appointed a yearly sacrifice that cleansed all the sins and impurities not covered by other means that the Israelites committed ignorantly (Hebrews 9:7). The sacrifice of the Day of Atonement was in this sense the most comprehensive of the Mosaic sacrifices.

This chapter is a theological pivot on which the whole Book of Leviticus turns. It is the climax of the first part of the book that deals with the public worship of the Israelites (chs. 1-16). The second major part of Leviticus begins at the end of this chapter and reveals the private worship of the Israelites (chs. 17-27).

The chapter begins with a reference back to chapter 10, the judgment of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 16:1). The material in chapter 16 is legislation that God prescribed shortly after and in view of that apostasy. Chapter 10 showed how important it was for priests to approach God with due care and self-preparation; those who did not died. Chapter 16 contains information about how the high priest must behave to preserve himself from a similar fate. There is this tie to the narrative of Israel’s history, but chapter 16 is also a continuation of the legislation designed to differentiate between clean and unclean contained in chapters 11-15. It is another block of legal material, though the style is quite discursive (narrative).

The Day of Atonement took place six months after the Passover. These two great festivals were half a year apart. Whereas the Passover was a day of great rejoicing, the Day of Atonement was a time of great solemnity in Israel. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) translators rendered the Day of Atonement as the Great Day of Forgiveness.

Verses 3-5

Basic requirements for the ceremonies 16:3-5

The high priest had to make elaborate preparations for entering the holy of holies by cleansing himself spiritually and physically. The offerings he made were a bull as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering, both to cover his own sins (cf. Hebrews 5:3). He also had to wear a special uniform, not the ornate garments that he usually wore to carry out his regular duties. This uniform consisted of four white garments and made him appear more as a slave than as a king. This dress was even simpler than that worn by the other priests (cf. Exodus 39:27-29).

"Among his [Aaron’s] 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 [cf. Ezekiel 9:2-3; Ezekiel 9:11; Ezekiel 10:2; Ezekiel 10:6-7; Daniel 10:5; Daniel 12:6-7; Revelation 19:8]." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 230.]

". . . elaborate garments might have detracted from the somberness of the occasion, when atonement for sin was the basic concern." [Note: Schultz, p. 85.]

Aaron had to wash his body, symbolizing his cleanness. He also offered two goats as a sin offering and another ram as a burnt offering for the Israelites. The high priest entered the holy of holies only once each year on the Day of Atonement to make these special sacrifices (cf. Hebrews 9:7).

Verses 6-10

An outline of the ceremonies 16:6-10

Aaron first offered the bull as a sin (purification) offering to cover his sins and the sins of the other priests (Leviticus 16:6). Then he cast lots to decide which of the two goats would die as a sin offering for the people and which one would be sent into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:7-8). Then he sacrificed the goat that was to die (Leviticus 16:9). Finally he brought the other goat before the Lord and then dispatched it into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:10).

Verses 11-19

The blood-sprinkling rites 16:11-19

Leviticus 16:11-14 describe the purification offering that Aaron was to offer for himself and the other priests. The act of offering incense represented the act of offering prayer that God would mercifully accept the sacrifices offered to cover the nation’s sins and uncleanness.

"The purpose of the incense-smoke was to create a screen which would prevent the High Priest from gazing upon the holy Presence." [Note: Hertz, p. 156.]

The second stage of the ceremony, the casting of lots over the goats, was rather simple and required little explanation. The third stage was the sacrificing of one of the goats as a sin offering for the people (Leviticus 16:15-19). This sacrifice cleansed the sanctuary of the defilement that the sins of the people caused, making it possible for a holy God to continue to dwell among sinful people (Leviticus 16:16; Leviticus 16:19-20).

The sprinkling of the blood on the mercy seat once (Leviticus 16:15) was for the removal of the sins of the people. [Note: See Douglass Judisch, "Propitiation in the Language and Typology of the Old Testament," Concordia Theological Quarterly 48:2-3 (April-July 1984):221-43, which deals with the Hebrew words translated "cover."] The sprinkling of the blood before the mercy seat seven times (Leviticus 16:19) was for the cleansing of the sanctuary from the people’s sins. The high priest then sprinkled blood on and before the altar of burnt offerings (Leviticus 16:18-19).

Verses 11-28

2. Instructions concerning the ritual 16:11-28

More detail follows in this section that helped Aaron know exactly how to conduct the cultic ritual and that helps the reader appreciate the implications of atonement.

Verses 20-22

The scapegoat 16:20-22

These verses describe the fourth and most striking phase of this day’s ceremony. The second goat symbolically bore the sins of the people taking them to an unclean place far from God. There is difference of opinion among the authorities about what "Azazel" means (Leviticus 16:8; Leviticus 16:10; Leviticus 16:26). The etymology of this Hebrew word is obscure. Some believe it means a rocky precipice or wilderness or some other place where the goat died, or it may refer to the goat’s function. Others think it refers to a demon to whom the Israelites’ sins were returned so it would not accuse them. Another view is that it means "the goat that departs" or "is banished." Whatever its exact meaning, the symbolism is clear enough. The live goat symbolically removed the sins of the Israelites from God’s presence.

The two goats used in the ritual represented two aspects of the atonement that God provided. Both animals taught the Israelites that a sinless agent was removing their sins by vicarious atonement. The goat slain represented the judgment on sin that resulted in death necessary for atonement. The goat sent off into the wilderness with the sinner’s guilt imputed to it symbolized the removal of guilt (cf. Leviticus 14:4-7). The word "scapegoat" comes from the AV description of the goat that "escaped" into the wilderness. In Hebrew "scapegoat" is azazel.

There were two forms of the laying on of hands in the Old Testament. The Jews performed one by placing two hands on persons in non-sacrificial contexts. They performed the other by placing one hand on animals when they sacrificed them (Leviticus 16:21). The two-handed form emphasized who the recipient of the ritual action was. The one-handed form drew attention to the person who put his hand on the animal. [Note: See Rene Peter, "L’Imposition des Mains dans L’Ancien Testament," Vetus Testamentum 27:1 (1977):48-55; David P. Wright, "The Gesture of Hand Placement in the Hebrew Bible and Hittite Literature," Journal of the American Oriental Society 106:3 (July-September 1986):433-46; and Sansom, pp. 323-26.] Another view is that the imposition of two hands intensified the idea of transferring guilt, specifically for intentional sins. [Note: Noam Zohar, "Repentance and Purification: The Significance and Semantics of ht’t in the Pentateuch," Journal of Biblical Studies 107:4 (1988):615, n. 31.]

Verses 23-28

The cleansing of the participants 16:23-28

The rituals for cleansing those who had had contact with the sacrifices conclude this section.

This entire ceremony pointed out very clearly the holiness of God and, in contrast, the sinfulness of man. Those involved in procuring atonement had to follow scrupulously the directions God gave for approaching Him in worship.

Verses 29-34

3. Instructions concerning the duty of the people 16:29-34

These verses also contain instructions for the yearly celebration of the Day of Atonement. The fact that the Israelites repeated it year by year points to the non-finality of the atonement that animal sacrifices made (cf. Hebrews 9:7-12).

All the Israelites were to humble their souls (fast and repent) and refrain from work in preparation for this event. This self-affliction included spiritual humbling as well as going without food (cf. Isaiah 58:3). Fasting was an indication that the practitioner regarded his need to seek God as more pressing than his need to eat. It often accompanied prayer (cf. Psalms 35:13). Refraining from work resulted from the same sense of priority. No human activity was necessary nor did God permit it in addition to the sacrifice that He provided to atone for sin.

The promise of God in Leviticus 16:30 is one that the Israelite was to believe and by which he could enjoy assurance of his fellowship with God. It is very clear from this verse and similar statements (cf. Leviticus 16:16; Leviticus 16:22) that God promised forgiveness and cleansing to all who trusted in the efficacy of the sacrifices that He provided and prescribed. [Note: For a survey of the attitudes of American Jews over the last century regarding the meaning of the Day of Atonement and regarding death and the afterlife, see Eric Friedland, "The Atonement Memorial Service in the American Mahzor," Hebrew Union College Annual 55 (1984):243-82.]

The writer of the Book of Hebrews saw the Day of Atonement as prefiguring Jesus’ crucifixion (Hebrews 9). Though the Day of Atonement is not something Christians observe, we can learn the nature of sin, the need for atonement, and the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice by reflecting on this Jewish ritual in the light of Calvary (cf. Hebrews 10:22-25). Some Christians practice self-affliction during Lent for essentially the same reason the Israelites afflicted themselves before the Day of Atonement.

"The only way of access into the presence of the LORD is by the application of the atoning blood on the mercy seat and the removal of the sins of the penitent by placing them on a scapegoat." [Note: Ross, p. 323.]

After the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70, the rabbis wanted to preserve the rituals of the Day of Atonement for future generations. They could not, of course, continue to practice Yom Kippur as the Mosaic Law specified without the temple. So they substituted prayer, repentance, and giving to charity for sacrifices and rituals that they could no longer practice. They also preserved the descriptions of the former rituals of Yom Kippur (now called the Avodah) in the mahtzor (the special prayer book used on Yom Kippur).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 16". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-16.html. 2012.
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