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Atonement, Day of

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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ATONEMENT, DAY OF . The Day of Atonement, with its unique and impressive ritual, is the culmination and crown of the sacrificial worship of the OT. The principal details are given in Leviticus 16:1-34 , supplemented by Leviticus 23:26-32 , Numbers 29:7-11 , Exodus 30:10 , all from the Priests’ Code, though not all, as we shall see, from the oldest strata of the priestly legislation. The date was the 10th day of the seventh month (Tishri) reckoning from evening to evening ( Leviticus 16:29; Leviticus 23:27 ff.). Not only was this day a ‘sabbath of solemn rest,’ on which no work of any sort was to be done, but its unique place among the religious festivals of the OT was emphasized by the strict observance of a fast. The rites peculiar to ‘the Day’ ( Yômâ ), as it is termed in later literature, may be conveniently grouped in five stages.

( a ) In the preparatory stage ( Leviticus 16:3-10 ), after the special morning sacrifices had been offered ( Numbers 29:7-11 ), the high priest selected the appointed sin- and burnt-offerings for himself and ‘his house,’ i.e. the priestly caste, then laid aside his usual ornate vestments, bathed, and robed in a simple white linen tunic and girdle. He next selected two he-goats and a ram for the people’s offerings, and proceeded to ‘cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , and the other lot for Azazel’ (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘scapegoat,’ see Azazel). These preparations completed, the proper expiatory rites were hegun, and were accomplished in three successive stages.

( b ) In the first stage ( Leviticus 16:11-14 ) the high priest made atonement for himself and the priesthood. After slaying the bullock of the sin-offering, he took a censer filled with live charcoal from the altar of burnt-offering and a handful of incense, and entered the Most Holy Place. Here he cast the incense on the coals, producing a cloud of smoke, by which the dwelling-place of the Most High between the Cherubim was hidden from mortal gaze (see Exodus 33:20 ). This done, he returned to the court, to enter immediately, for the second time, the inner sanctuary, carrying a basin with the blood of the bullock, which he sprinkled on the front of the mercy-seat once, and seven times on the ground before the ark.

( c ) In the second stage ( Leviticus 16:15-19 ) atonement was made in succession for the Most Holy Place, the Holy Place, and the outer court. The goat on which the lot ‘for J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’ had fallen was slain by the high priest, who then entered the Most Holy Place for the third time with its blood, which he manipulated as before. On his return through the Holy Place a similar ceremony was performed ( Leviticus 16:33 , cf. Exodus 30:10 ), after which he proceeded, as directed in Leviticus 16:18 f., to ‘cleanse and hallow’ the altar of burnt-offering, which stood in the outer court.

( d ) These all led up to the culminating rite in the third stage ( Leviticus 16:20-22 ). Here the high priest, placing both hands on the head of the goat allotted to Azazel, made solemn confession the tenor of which may still be read in the Mishnic treatise Yômâ of all the nation’s sins. By this ceremony these sins were conceived as not only symbolically but actually transferred to the head of the goat ( Leviticus 16:21 f., see below), which was solemnly conducted to ‘a solitary land’ (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), the supposed abode of the mysterious Azazel. In NT times the goat was led to a lofty precipice in the wilderness about 12 miles east of Jerusalem, over which it was thrown backwards, to be dashed in pieces on the rocks below ( Yômâ , vi. 6ff.).

( e ) We now reach the concluding stage of ‘the Day’s’ ceremonial ( Leviticus 16:23-28 ). The fact that the essential part was now accomplished was strikingly shown by the high priest’s retiring into the Holy Place to put off ‘the holy garments’ ( Leviticus 16:23; Leviticus 16:32 ), bathe, and resume his ordinary high-priestly vestments. Returning to the court, he offered the burnt-offerings for himself and the people, together with the fat of the sin-offering. The remaining verses ( Leviticus 16:26-28 ) deal with details, the characteristic significance of which will be discussed presently.

Reasoning from the literary history of Leviticus 16:1-34 , from the highly developed sense of sin, and from the unique prominence given to fasting, as well as on other grounds which cannot be fully set forth here, OT scholars are now practically unanimous in regarding the Day of Atonement as an institution of the post-exilic age. There is good reason for holding although on this point there is not the same unanimity that it originated even later than the time of Ezra, by whom the main body of the Priests’ Code was introduced. The nucleus from which the rites of Leviticus 16:1-34 were developed was probably the simpler ceremonial laid down by Ezekiel for the purification of the sanctuary Ezekiel 45:18 ff.). Other elements, such as the earlier provisions for the entry of the high priest into the Most Holy Place still found in the opening verses of Leviticus 16:1-34 , and perhaps the desire to make an annual institution of the great fast of Nehemiah 9:1 ff., contributed to the final development of the institution as it now appears in the Pentateuch. It is doubtless much older than the earliest reference in Sir 50:5 ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 180). In NT it is referred to as ‘the Fast’ ( Acts 27:9 ), and so occasionally by Josephus. To this day it remains the most solemn and most largely attended religious celebration of the Jewish year.

The dominating thought of Leviticus 16:1-34 is the awful reality and contagion of sin, which affects not only priest and people, but the sanctuary itself. Its correlate is the intense realization of the need of cleansing and propitiation, as the indispensable condition of right relations with a holy God. The details of the ritual by which these relations were periodically renewed are of surpassing interest, as showing how the loftlest religious thought may be associated with ritual elements belonging to the most primitive stages of religion. Thus, in the case before us, the efficacy of the blood, the universal medium of purification and atonement, is enhanced by cessation from labour and complete abstinence from food the latter the outward accompaniment of inward penitence and by the high priest’s public and representative confession of the nation’s sins. Yet alongside of these we find the antique conception of holiness and uncleanness as something material, and of the fatal consequences of unguarded contact with the one or the other. It is only on this plane of thought that one understands the need of the cleansing of the sanctuary, infected by the ‘uncleannesses’ of the people among whom it dwelt ( Leviticus 16:16 , RV [Note: Revised Version.] , cf. Ezekiel 45:18 ff.). The same primitive idea of the contagion of holiness underlies the prescribed change of garments on the part of the high priest. The ‘holy garments’ in which the essential parts of the rite were performed had to be deposited in the Holy Place; those who had been brought into contact with the sacrosanct animals (vv. 26ff.) must bathe and wash their clothes, lest, as Ezekiel says in another connexion, ‘they sanctify the people with their garments’ ( Ezekiel 44:19 ), i.e. lest the mysterious contagion pass to the people with disastrous results. The most striking illustration of this transmissibility, however, is seen in the central rite by which the nation’s sins are transferred to the head of ‘the goat for Azazel,’ the demonic spirit of the wilderness (cf. the similar rite, Leviticus 14:6 f.).

These survivals from the earlier stages of the common Semitic religion should not blind the modern student to the profound conviction of sin to which the institution bears witness, nor to the equally profound sense of the need of pardon and reconciliation, and of uninterrupted approach to God. By its emphasis on these perennial needs of the soul the Day of Atonement played no unimportant part in the preparation of Judaism for the perfect atonement through Jesus Christ. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in a familiar passage contrasts the propitiatory work of the Jewish high priest on this day with the great propitiation of Him who, by virtue of His own atoning blood, ‘entered in once for all into the holy place’ (Hebrews 9:12 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), even ‘into heaven itself,’ where He remains, our great High Priest and Intercessor ( Hebrews 7:25 f.).

A. R. S. Kennedy.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Atonement, Day of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​a/atonement-day-of.html. 1909.
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