What day do you most look forward to every year? Is it a special holiday or a birthday for you, your spouse, or one of your children? While our countries and cultures each have their own days to celebrate, there is also much for us to learn from the holy days God set apart for Israel. Let’s learn about the holiest of these holy days with these notes from John Goldingay on Leviticus 16 from the For Everyone Commentary Series.

The Expiation Day

I climbed Mount Sinai in September 1973, near the beginning of the seventh month in the Jewish year as Leviticus computes it (counting from Passover), and thus just after the New Year on the modern Jewish calendar. It was five days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn occasion in the year. Israel virtually closes down: there is no public transport; the movie theaters, stores, and businesses are closed; and television and radio are suspended.

On the Day of Atonement that year, five days after I had been in Sinai, Egypt and Syria launched an attack to reclaim land occupied by Israel and won an initial advantage by their surprise move. Jews were scandalized at the attack on Israel’s holiest day, but I guess all is fair in love and war, especially when you want to get your land back; and if religion becomes a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, it becomes prostituted.

The Day of Atonement or Expiation Day is indeed the holiest day of the year. Coming just after the celebration of the New Year and just before the Feast of Sukkot (Shelters), which again commemorates the exodus, it looks both backward and forward. It clears the slate, so it is possible to go into the New Year with confidence because things have been sorted out with God. In Leviticus, the focus of the occasion is cleansing the sanctuary. God’s presence or absence there means life or death to the community. If God is there, they can go and meet with God, offer their worship, bring their prayers and their thanksgivings, and live in relationship. If God were to leave the sanctuary, the center of their lives would have gone.

Getting the Junk Out of the Way

They know, and God knows, that it is quite possible for junk between them and God to accumulate in such a way that God has to say, “I can’t stay here any longer.” The action of Aaron’s sons reported in Leviticus 10 was one obvious major threat to God’s willingness to stay; hence this chapter’s starting point. Maybe this rite initially relates to that event, but if so, it becomes an annual observance. On this one occasion in the year the high priest goes into the inner sanctuary to make sure the presence of junk in the sanctuary does not affect it.

The object of many of the rules either side of Leviticus 10 is to prevent this from happening in more gradual ways. The junk is material that stands in conflict with who Yahweh is—things redolent of death and disorder. There is no way of ensuring that all these things are dealt with through the year. Who knows how many people have ignored rules or accidentally contravened them without anyone knowing? So God sets up this annual observance that constitutes a thorough cleaning out of the sanctuary to ensure it is possible to stay.

The First Goat

The distinctiveness of the observance lies in what happens to the two goats, though it is an enhanced version of the actions with the two birds in chapter 14. At one level the actions with the two goats provide two ways of dealing with the same problem; one of their functions would be to reassure people that God really has dealt with it (twice!). Offering one goat to God would be the regular and familiar way of providing cleansing for the sanctuary, but when God needs to deal with something as big as this, the action with the second goat makes doubly sure.

In case it seems that offering the goat to deal with the offenses that would bring taboo on the sanctuary was not enough or did not seem enough, the second goat carries them off into the wilderness, into a place where they can do no harm. Or perhaps the two actions deal with two aspects of the problem. Sacrificing the one goat deals with the need to cleanse the sanctuary; the action with the second goat deals with Israel’s rebelliousness and its effects on its broader relationship with God.

The Second Goat

Only in this chapter does Leviticus talk about Israel’s “rebellions”; it is a strong term to describe its wrongdoing. It suggests much more than accidental trespass into the sanctuary area when you should keep out because of a taboo. So the observance involving the second goat signifies Israel’s repentance, its forsaking of its waywardness and its desire to be rid of it, and it signifies God’s providing for its removal so it does not get in the way between God and Israel. If you put an object such as a bag of wheat on an animal, it carries the burden off.

When the high priest puts his hands on the goat’s head, he is identifying the goat as belonging to the people whom he represents and as in some sense representing them. (Putting both hands on something is unusual, but it also happens when—for instance—Moses commissions Joshua as his successor, so maybe it signifies that this is a very important act.) God lets that be the way the people’s rebellions are invisibly transferred to the goat for it to carry. The normal principle is that if you do wrong you “carry your waywardness.” You bear responsibility for it, and you are liable to have to pay for it. But now the goat will “carry all their acts of waywardness” and take them off into the wilderness (verse 22).

Removed as Far as the East is from the West

In later Jewish literature Azazel is a demon, but we have noted that Leviticus wants to avoid Israel’s being demon preoccupied like other peoples, as if there were powers of evil that rivaled Yahweh in their power. If Azazel is a demon, he has been demythologized, as happens when we ourselves speak of “gremlins” or “evil forces,” whether or not we believe in demons. In later Jewish writings Azazel refers to the place where the goat was sent, or it can be a term to designate the animal as the “scapegoat.” Whatever it means in itself, it signifies an assurance that Israel’s wayward acts are taken to a place where they can do no harm. It parallels the picture in Micah 7:19 of offenses thrown into the deepest sea. This is effective not only for Israelites but also for any aliens who choose to identify with Israel.

Learn More with the For Everyone Commentary

If you’re looking for a clear and concise commentary on holy days and the entire Bible then look no further than the For Everyone Commentary Series. Two of our generation’s most outstanding scholars, John Goldingay and N. T. Wright, wrote the volumes in the For Everyone Commentary Series. Visit our store through the link below to learn more!

1 Comment

  1. What a powerful story. This shows how important faith can be in times of difficulty and uncertainty. The Day of Atonement is an incredible example of how we should always strive to make amends, regardless of what has happened in the past.

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