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Bible Dictionaries
Day of Atonement

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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DAY OF ATONEMENT ([י״ כִּפֻרִים] יוֹם הַכָּפֻּרִים ἡμέρα [τοῦ] ἐξιλασμοῦ).—The chief OT passages bearing on it are Leviticus 16; Leviticus 23:26-32, but some further details are given in Exodus 30:10, Leviticus 25:9, Numbers 29:7-11. An earlier and simpler form of the ceremony is prescribed in Ezekiel 45:18-20. The day is not mentioned in the Gospels, but it is referred to as ἡ νηστεία in Acts 27:9 (also Ep. Barn. 7:3, 4, Josephus Ant. xvii. vi. 4).

1. It is not necessary in the present article to describe fully the ritual and worship of the day; only the salient features are here touched upon which offer some analogy with the Christian Atonement. The more important parts of the ceremony were, briefly, as follows:—

(a) The high priest procured and brought before the Tent a bullock as a sin-offering for himself, and two goats upon which lots were cast, one being destined as a sin-offering for the people, and the other to be ‘for Azazel.’ He sacrificed the bullock, and carried its blood into the Holy of Holies, where, after enveloping the mercy-seat with a cloud of burning incense, he sprinkled the blood before it. He then came out and sacrificed the goat for the people, and, re-entering the Holy of Holies, sprinkled its blood before the mercy-seat. He next sprinkled the blood of each animal on the altar of incense in the Holy Place; and, lastly, he sprinkled the mingled blood of bullock and goat on the brazen altar in the outer court. Thus the blood (the life) of the animals, representing the life of priest and people, was offered before God; and they, and the three parts of the Tent polluted by their presence during the preceding year, were cleansed, and atonement was made for them.

(b) The goat for Azazel was then brought near. The sins of the people were confessed over it, and it was led into the wilderness. The two goats were intended figuratively to represent one and the same being, who, though sacrificed, was yet living, and able to carry away the sins of the people. In the Mishna (Yômâ vi. 1, cf. Ep. Barn. 7:6) this thought was afterwards emphasized by the regulation that the goats must resemble each other as closely as possible.

(c) The high priest offered two rams as a burnt-offering for himself and the people, signifying the complete offering up of the worshippers’ lives and persons to God.

(d) The skin, flesh, and dung of the bullock and the goat, whose blood had made atonement, were burnt outside the camp.

2. The great spiritual truths typified by this ceremony are to a certain extent drawn out in Hebrews 9:7-14; Hebrews 9:21-28; Hebrews 10:19-22.

(a) The high priest entered ‘into the second [part of the Tent] once a year’ (ἄπαξ τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ, i.e. on one day in the year), Hebrews 9:7. But Christ entered into ‘the Holies’ once for all (ἐφάπαξ, Hebrews 9:12); and see Hebrews 9:24 f., Hebrews 10:11 f. Thus His blood—i.e. His life freed for eternal uses by death—is perpetually presented before God.

(b) The earthly ‘holies’ are ‘made with hands,’ ‘types corresponding to the real ones’ (ἁντίτυπα τῶν ἀληθινῶν). But Christ entered into ‘heaven itself,’ Hebrews 9:24.

(c) The high priest entered ‘in the blood of another’ (Hebrews 9:25)—‘with the accompaniment of [by means of, διά] the blood of goats and calves’: Christ, with His own blood, Hebrews 9:12. And the Tent, ‘the copies (ὑποδείγματα) of the things in the heavens,’ must be purified with the former: but the heavenly things with better sacrifices than these, Hebrews 9:23. With regard to the meaning of this, Westcott says: ‘It may be said that even “heavenly things,” so far as they embody the conditions of man’s future life, contracted by the Fall something which required cleansing. Man is, according to the revelation in Scripture, so bound up with the whole finite order, that the consequences of his actions extend through creation in some way which we are unable to define.’

(d) The sacrifices of the Day of Atonement (and other sacrifices—‘the ashes of an heifer,’ see Numbers 19) can effect only the purifying of the flesh; i.e. outward ceremonial cleansing. But if they can effect that, a fortiori the blood of Christ can purify our consciences from the defiling contact of dead works, Hebrews 9:13 f.

(e) The high priest entered alone; which fact signified that while the first Tent continued to have a standing among men (ἐχούσης στἀσιν), the way for all men into ‘the Holies’ was not yet manifested, Hebrews 9:7 f. But now ‘we have confidence which leads us to enter into the Holies in the blood of Jesus by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us, through the veil, that is to say [the way] of His flesh,’ Hebrews 10:19 f.

The main truths, then, at which the writer of the Epistle arrives by direct reference to the Day of Atonement are: that Christ is both Priest and Victim; that His sacrifice is eternally efficacious, and that it is being eternally presented by Him in Heaven; that its effects are not ceremonial but spiritual; and that we now have free access to the Father.

3. But other points of analogy and contrast suggest themselves, some of which are partially supplied by the Ep. to the Hebrews.

(a) The high priest offered a bullock for the atonement of his own sins. ‘The law appoints as high priests men possessed of weakness,’ Hebrews 7:28; Hebrews 5:1-3. But the Son was ‘such an high priest as was fitting for us, holy, guileless, undefiled,’ Hebrews 7:26. And the sinfulness of the high priest appears to have been the reason of his causing a cloud of burning incense to hide the mercy-seat from his sight. He was unfit, until atonement had been made for his sins, to look upon the place of God’s Presence. But now that Christ has ‘procured eternal salvation for us,’ not only our High Priest but we ourselves may ‘come boldly unto the throne of grace.’

(b) An obvious contrast between the Jewish and Christian Atonement is afforded by the fact that the former was possible only in the case of unwitting offences (ἀγνοήματα, Hebrews 9:7), sins committed ‘in ignorance’ (Leviticus 4:2; Leviticus 4:13; Leviticus 4:22; Leviticus 4:27, Numbers 15:24-29, contrast Numbers 15:30 f.). If Christ’s Atonement were thus limited, our faith were vain, we should be yet in our sins.

(c) It is important to notice that the Jewish sacrifice was very different from those of the heathen. Its purpose was not to appease—to buy the goodwill of—a cruel and capricious deity. The offerings did not originate with men; they are represented as commanded and appointed by God Himself. They were due to His own loving initiative; He showed the way by which men, who were hostile by reason of their sins, might be reconciled to Him. So likewise ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son’ (John 3:16). Nay more; Christ the Victim voluntarily offered Himself (John 10:17, Matthew 20:28 || Mark 10:45). Scripture nowhere speaks of God being reconciled to man; see Romans 5:10; Romans 11:15, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. God is not hostile to us, although by His very nature He must be angry with sin and punish it; but we are hostile to God (Luke 19:27, Philippians 3:18, Colossians 1:21, James 4:4).

(d) The ceremonies performed by the high priest were not a mere opus operatum, the magic of a medicine man. The whole congregation had morally to take an active part. The Day of Atonement was to be a day of cessation from work, like a Sabbath, and a day when every man must afflict (עָנָה) his soul—.e. render his soul contrite and penitent by means of fasting, self-humiliation, and confession of sins. It is true that Isaiah 58:4-7 denounces the outward expressions of this ‘affliction of the soul’ when they are unaccompanied by the necessary moral fruits, as Christ Himself does (Matthew 6:16); but Leviticus 23:26-32, Numbers 29:7-11 clearly imply that real penitence is necessary for atonement. The Mishna also recognizes that, while the ceremonies of the day are effectual for Israel as a whole, individuals must appropriate the results by repentance. ‘If a man says, “I will sin and (then) repent, I will sin and (then) repent,” Heaven does not give him the means of practising repentance; and if he says, “I will sin, and the Day of Atonement will bring atonement,” the Day of Atonement will bring no atonement’ (ômâ viii. 8, 9). And similarly a Christian’s faith in the atoning death of Christ is not merely an intellectual acceptance of the fact that He died for each and all. Faith, as the NT teaches it, involves a conscious co-operation with Christ’s work. That work was not accomplished to free us from the necessity of doing anything. The atoning work of the God-Man is in living union with the longings and strivings of men for atonement, and thereby makes them effectual. But if a man does not repent,—does not wish to be free from sin,—for him the Atonement brings no atonement. The results of Christ’s death are ‘a power of God, leading to salvation’ (Romans 1:16); but the energy remains potential and useless until the human will renders it kinetic by deliberate appropriation.

(e) And this truth was foreshadowed in the Jewish atonement not only by the fasting of the people, but in the ceremony which formed the centre and kernel of it all. The killing of an animal and the shedding of its blood contained a meaning which far transcended that of mere death. The body is ‘the expression of life in terms of its environment’; the blood represents the life set free from its limiting environment for higher uses (Leviticus 17:11). When Christ, therefore, entered heaven ‘with his own blood’ (Hebrews 9:12), ‘to appear in the presence of God for us’ (Hebrews 9:24), He began ‘the died.” ’ But ‘we reckon that one died on behalf of all; in that case all died’ (2 Corinthians 5:14); and as the high priest offered the blood of the which symbolized the life of the whole people, so ‘the life that died’ is our life, in complete union with Chist’s (Hebrews 10:19). The same truth is expressed in another form in Hebrews 10:1-10. Christ’s voluntary self-offering consisted in absolute obedience to the Father’s will, an obedience having its seat in a body prepared for Him. ‘In which will we have been sanctified through the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ But that is rendered possible only because of His living union with us which makes us part of His body. ‘The Church is the extension of the Incarnation.’ And this vital union is strengthened and perpetuated by the faithful appropriation of it in the Sacrament of His body and blood.

(f) It has been said above that the goat ‘for Azazel’ (Authorized Version ‘scape-goat’) was considered figuratively to be the same animal as the goat that was sacrificed. Its blood was shed for the atonement of the people, and, at the same time, it took upon itself the burden of their sins in order to carry it away. There is no distinct reference to the scape-goat in Hebrews, but a possible allusion occurs in Hebrews 9:28, where the writer quotes Isaiah 53:12 (6). Christ was ‘once offered to bear (ἀνενγκεῖν) the sins of many.’ The verb seems to contain the double thought of ‘offering up’ and ‘taking up upon oneself’ as a burden; cf. John 1:29.

(g) After the atonement was completed and the sins carried away, there followed the sacrifice of the rams as a burnt-offering. It is peculiarly significant that in Leviticus 16:24 the high priest is bidden to ‘offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people, and make an atonement for himself and for the people.’ The great atonement in the sanctuary, though complete, was only an initial act which needed the continued burnt-offering to render its effects permanent. This symbolizes the sequel and corollary of the truth which formed the subject of (d) and (e). Our own life having been offered upon Calvary in union with Christ’s, we ‘died with him,’ and we are ‘alive unto God’ through Him. That being so, we are bound to make an active appropriation of our part in His eternal presentation of the offering in heaven; we are bound to render permanent the effects of the great Atonement by yielding up our whole spirit and soul and body as a perpetual burnt-offering. See Romans 12:1; 1 Peter 2:5, Hebrews 13:15.

4. The above suggestions are those dealing with the more fundamental points, but they are, of course, far from being exhaustive of the analogies which may be drawn. The isolation of the high priest when he entered the sanctuary suggests a comparison of Hebrews 9:7 (μόνος) with Hebrews 7:26 (κεχωρισμένος). His double entrance, first for himself and then for the people, seems to foreshadow the two entrances of Christ into the Unseen, once when He entered it at death, from which He returned victorious, and again when He entered it by His resurrection and ascension ‘to appear before the face of God on our behalf’ (Hebrews 9:24). Again, the return of the high priest to the people in the outer court at the close of the ceremony recalls the words of Hebrews 9:28, ‘a second time without sin shall he appear to them that wait for him.’ And, finally, the burning of the sacrifice outside the gate is used as yet another type of Christ (Hebrews 13:11 f.).

Literature.—1. On the ceremonies of the day; Comm. on Leviticus 16, esp. Dillmann; Mishna, Yômâ (ed. Surenhusius, with Lat. translation and notes, 1699); Maimonides’ account of the ceremonies (translation by Delitzsch at the end of his Com. on Hebrews); Josephus Ant. iii. x. 3; art. in Hasting’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , vol. i. p. 199 ff.

2. On the significance of the ceremonies: Sheringham’ Yômâ2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , to which is added (p. 150 ff.) an elaborate comparison by Rhenferd of the work of the high priest with that of Christ; Comm. on Hebrews, esp. Westcott, with the Add. Notes on chs. 8–10; Milligan, Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood.

3. On the doctrine of the Atonement: M‘Leod Campbell, On the Nature of the Atonement; R. W. Dale, The Doctrine of the Atonement; H. N. Oxenham, The Catholic Doctrine of the Atonement; F. D. Maurice, The Doctrine of Sacrifice; B. F. Westcott, The Victory of the Cross; Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine; esp. iv. 1–124. Intimately connected with the subject are treatises on the Incarnation.

A. H. M‘Neile.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Day of Atonement'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​d/day-of-atonement.html. 1906-1918.
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