Leviticus 16

The Word Made Fresh

1After the death of Aaron’s two sons, who died when they had come into the sanctuary of the LORD, 2the LORD told Moses, “Tell your brother Aaron not to come inside the curtain in the sanctuary whenever he wishes, and approach the sacred chest with the cherubim, or he will die, because I may be in the cloud above the cherubim. 3When he enters that room he must bring a young bull for a guilt offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4He must be wearing the sacred linen gown over the linen underclothes. He must tie the linen sash around his waist and wear the linen turban; this is the proper sacred dress. He must bathe with water before he dresses. 5He must then take from the people of Israel two male goats for their guilt offering and a ram for their burnt offering. 6He must sacrifice the bull as a guilt offering for himself and his family. 7Then he must bring the two goats to the entrance of the sanctuary, 8and Aaron will cast lots to choose which goat is for the LORD and which is to be the scapegoat. 9Then he will sacrifice the one chosen for the LORD as a guilt offering, 10but the one chosen as the scapegoat he must present alive to the LORD to restore a right relationship between the LORD and the people, and then send it away into the wilderness.

11“First, Aaron will present the bull to make things right between himself and his family and the LORD, and slaughter it as a guilt offering for himself. 12Then he must take a container full of hot coals from the fire on the altar before the LORD, along with two handfuls of crushed incense, and bring it inside the curtain entrance 13and place the incense on the fire so that the smoke from its burning will hide the lid with the cherubim on the chest of the LORD’s covenant with Israel, else he will die. 14Then he must take some of the bull’s blood and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the lid and then sprinkle it seven times in front of the lid.

15“Then he will sacrifice the goat of the guilt offering for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain and repeat what he had done with the bull’s blood. 16In this way he will make things right between the people and the LORD because of their sins and mistakes, and this will purify the meeting tent as well. 17No one must be in the meeting tent with him from the time he enters until he comes back out, having made things right between the LORD and himself and his family and all the people. 18Then Aaron will go out to the altar of sacrifice and restore it to the LORD by taking some of the blood from the bull and the goat and putting it on each of the four horns of the altar. 19He must sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times so that it is cleansed from the sins of the people.

20“Then Aaron shall present the live goat, 21lay his hands on its head, and confess every sin and every mistake made by the people of Israel. He will thus place their sins on the goat’s head. Then he will choose someone to lead it out into the wilderness and leave it there. 22The goat will be carrying all the people’s sins and transgressions and will be set free in the wilderness.

23 Then Aaron shall enter the meeting tent, remove the linen clothing and leave it there, 24thouroughly wash himself with water, don his usual priestly clothes, and then come out and sacrifice his and the people’s burnt offerings so that all will be well between him and the people and the LORD. 25The fat from the guilt offering he will burn on the altar, turning it to smoke. 26The one who took the scapegoat into the wilderness will wash his clothes and bathe himself before he can return to the camp. 27The remains of the bull and the goat of the guilt offering, the blood of which was taken into the most sacred place, must be taken outside the camp and burned – skin and meat and entrails. 28The one who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe before he returns to the camp.

29“From now on, on the tenth day of the seventh month of every year, you must fast and do no work. This applies to all of you and any foreigner who lives among you. 30On this day you will make these sacrifices and be cleansed of all your sins. 31It is to be observed as a sacred day from now on and you must deny yourselves and take no nourishment on this day. 32Whoever has been anointed and set apart as a priest in his father’s place will put on the linen garments and carry out the ritual to make things right between us. 33He shall do this for the sanctuary and the meeting tent and the altar, and he shall do this for the priests and for all the people who gather. 34This is a permanent rule for you, to make things right between the LORD and the people of Israel once each year.”

Moses did as the LORD commanded him.

Commentary

1-5: Aaron can’t enter the most holy place in the sanctuary of the tabernacle any time he wants. He must bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Then he must bathe and dress in the linen undergarments and the linen robe. From the community he must take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

6-10: The sin offerings are first. Aaron’s bull is sacrificed, and then the two goats are brought to the entrance of the tent and lots are cast to determine which is to be released to “Azazel.” In earlier translations “Azazel” is rendered “scapegoat.” More recently many scholars have come to regard it as the proper name of a demon that was believed to inhabit the wilderness. This is the only chapter in the Bible in which the name occurs. One goat is sacrificed, the other released into the wilderness. The symbolism is that the sins of the people are carried away and left out in the desert.

11-14: Some of the hot coals from the altar are taken by Aaron into the most holy place along with incense and some of the blood from the bull. The incense is burned until its smoke covers the wooden chest of the covenant, and the blood is sprinkled before the mercy seat seven times. This how he makes atonement for himself.

15-19: The goat is sacrificed for the people and some of its blood is sprinkled before the mercy seat. Then some of the blood from the bull and from the goat is smeared on the points of the altar and sprinkled seven times on the ground before the altar, thus drawing a connection between God’s throne and the place where the offering is given.

20-22: Once the sacrifices have all been made, the live goat is now brought forward. Aaron places his hands on its head and confesses over it all the sins of the people. Then it is sent into the wilderness and set free.

23-28: Once all the sacrifices are made, Aaron removes the linen garments inside the tent (but not in the most holy place), bathes again, and dons the priestly vestments. He then offers the remaining animals as burnt offerings. The unused parts of the carcasses are removed from the camp. The man who takes the scapegoat into the wilderness and those who carry the remains out of the camp are to bathe before they are allowed to reenter the camp.

29-34: This ritual is set aside as an annual observance that has come to be known as Yom Kippur, “Day of Atonement,” to be observed on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar. On our calendar this may occur from mid-September to mid-October.

Takeaway

This chapter stands alone in Leviticus. It outlines the rules for keeping the annual “Day of Atonement” when Aaron (and subsequent high priests) offers sacrifices for all the people and secures their atonement, or forgiveness, so that their covenant with God is annually renewed. Today among Jews the “Day of Atonement” is known as Yom Kippur. Rabbis refer to it simply as Yoma, “the Day,” for it holds the central place in Israel’s annual worship calendar.