At the center of the center of the Torah is the Day of Atonement. What is the significance of this day the biblical authors have placed at the heart of the Torah? What does this day accomplish? And what’s with the sacrificial goat and the scapegoat? In this episode, Tim and Jon explore the Day of Atonement and the ultimate atonement accomplished by Jesus on the cross.
When the author of Hebrews says it’s impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins, he’s not saying something new. What he’s saying is what is already the message of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is telling us that the animal sacrifices are just a symbolic gift of Yahweh of a down payment of something bigger that needs to happen, which is a blameless human that is to come and stand in the holy place and offer their life.
In part one (00:00-20:20), Tim and Jon review the storyline of Leviticus so far. God has given Israel the gift of a new Eden space, a new space where Heaven and Earth are one, in the tabernacle. Through the blood of animal sacrifices, Israel is able to draw near to Yahweh in his holiness. The tribe of Levi works as priests in the tabernacle, guarding the border between heaven and earth.
However, it takes hardly any time at all for the Levites to fail, too. Aaron’s sons rebel against Yahweh, and God takes their lives (Leviticus 10). Immediately after this, Yahweh gives Israel laws of purity and impurity to guide how they are to enter his presence (Leviticus 11-15). Impurity is not sin, but anything that would pollute God’s holy space.
At the center of the center of the Torah are instructions for the Day of Atonement, the way Israel would purify Yahweh’s tent and atone for their sins.
In part two (20:20-37:53), Tim and Jon explore Leviticus 16, which describes the Day of Atonement, the one day every year the high priest could enter the holy of holies, where Yahweh resided. (Only the high priest was allowed to enter this space.)
When the high priest appears before the people, he wears elaborate regalia––robes and jewels––but when he enters the holy of holies he strips down to a far simpler linen tunic (Leviticus 16:4). He has to come more humbly before Yahweh. First, he makes an offering to atone for his own sins, and then he makes a separate offering to atone for the sins of Israel.
One of the high priest’s duties on the Day of Atonement is to cast lots for the fate of two goats. One would be sacrificed, and one would be sent out into the wilderness for azazel. Most of our modern English translations of the Bible translate this word as “scapegoat.” Many early Bible interpreters took azazel to be the name of a spiritual being who resided in the wilderness.
The high priest would sprinkle the blood of the other goat on the lid of the atonement seat to cover over Israel’s ritual impurities (not having to do with sin), as well as their moral failings and sin. It’s as if this lid, the very place where God’s presence touches down on earth, is also the very place God himself has provided a substitute.
In part three (37:53-51:08), Tim and Jon explore the nature of the atonement accomplished with the Day of Atonement. The goat’s blood sprinkled in the holy of holies makes atonement for Yahweh’s sacred space, not for the people. The failings of the people have polluted Yahweh’s sacred space, and these offerings purify his space once more.
If Yahweh’s space isn’t purified, Israel’s sins will eventually pollute the holy of holies to such a degree that Yahweh will leave. His departure from Israel in the book of Ezekiel is depicted in this way.
The significance of the second goat sent to azazel is highly debated. The text seems to indicate that this goat is not a sacrifice, but part of an elimination ritual. The goat doesn’t die––it’s sent away, carrying Israel’s “garbage,” as the sins of the nation are placed upon it. And it’s sent to a spiritual being only referred to as azazel, not to appease this being, but rather as an insult to it. Israel’s spiritual refuse shows up on azazel’s doorstep. Azazel appears to be another name for the being referred to as Satan, the evil one, and the enemy throughout the story of the Bible.
In part four (51:08-01:08:30), Tim and Jon discuss how Jesus fulfills the Day of Atonement.
Jesus’ death is littered with language from Exodus and Leviticus. At the last supper he merges language from the Passover with language used in Leviticus to describe the blood of sacrificial animals poured out. Jesus shows himself as the fulfillment of the Passover and the Day of Atonement. In fact, Jesus fulfills the role of both goats in the Day of Atonement ritual. His blood atones for humanity and makes a way for God and humans to dwell together, like the goat offered in the holy of holies. Similar to the goat for azazel, Jesus suffered outside Jerusalem near a burial plot, like a display in the presence of azazel.
When the author of Hebrews says it’s impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins, this isn’t new information (Hebrews 10:4). Animal sacrifices were always seen as a temporary means to an end, satisfied in the sacrifice of Jesus and the ongoing, ultimate display of the Father’s love for humanity.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Tyler Bailey. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by MacKenzie Buxman and Ashlyn Heise.
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