Theology in 3D

The Day of Atonement

Ken Casillas | September 28, 2017
Old Testament

In the first installment of this series on the feasts of Israel, I dealt with the Feast of Trumpets. Jewish tradition refers to the period from Trumpets/Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei) through the Day of Atonement (10 Tishrei) as its “High Holy Days” or “Days of Awe.”

What makes this time so significant? Judaism teaches that on Rosh Hashanah God opens his heavenly books, three of them specifically: one listing the wicked, one listing the righteous, and one listing those who are still to be categorized. During the High Holy Days those in the third category have the opportunity to repent of sin and do good deeds. Their hope is that when God closes the books on the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur—their names will be transferred to the book of the righteous instead of the book of the wicked. That way if they die during the new year, they will be resurrected to eternal life instead of suffering damnation.

In this regard, on Rosh Hashanah many Jews practice the ritual known as tashlikh, from the root shlkh, meaning to cast or throw. This involves going to a body of water and throwing small pieces of bread into the water. These represent a person’s sins, which he is symbolically breaking with as he looks to God to drown them out of sight.

These traditions have some basis in the Hebrew Scriptures. Psalm 69:28 refers to God’s “book of the living” (cf. Exod. 32:32). Micah 7:19 promises that Yahweh will cast (shlkh) the sins of his people into the depths of the sea. In addition, the instructions for the Day of Atonement emphasize the need for humility and repentance: “you shall afflict yourselves” (Lev. 16:293123:2732; cf. Num. 29:7). However, since A.D. 70 the Jews have lacked the Day-of-Atonement elements most necessary to convey how it is that God forgives sin: they have no tabernacle/temple and no High Priest and therefore no sacrifices. So on Yom Kippur all they have left to present to God is their woefully inadequate effort at obedience.


Theologically, the original Day of Atonement went in the opposite direction. Leviticus 16explains that Yahweh set up this observance as a kind of annual house-cleaning. Throughout the year the tabernacle would become ceremonially unclean because it “absorbed” the people’s sin that had been symbolically transferred to the animals sacrificed there. Plus the Israelites themselves had plenty of ceremonial uncleanness still attached to them. So the tabernacle and the people regularly needed to be cleansed so that the holy God could continue dwelling among the Israelites and they could continue having access to him.

Here I can only touch on some highlights of the multi-faceted Day-of-Atonement ritual. The High Priest had to deal symbolically with his own sins through the sacrifice of a bull (vv. 11-14), but the ceremony centered on two male goats. By lot one of the goats was selected as a purification offering. The blood of this animal was sprinkled on different parts of the tabernacle, moving from the inside out: from the “mercy seat” in the Most Holy Place (vv. 15-16a), to the tabernacle generally (vv. 16b-17), to the altar outside (vv. 18-19).

With the tabernacle purified, the next step addressed the sins of the people themselves—especially sins that for whatever reason had not been dealt with through individual sacrifices during the previous year (vv. 20-22). The priest placed his hands on the head of the second goat and confessed “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (v. 21). With these offenses symbolically transferred to the goat, the animal was sent away into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

Leviticus 16 connects the second goat with the word ‘aza’zel (vv. 8, 10, 26), a disputed term. Traditionally it has been understand as a compound word meaning “goat of removal” and leading to the English term scapegoat. But it could just as well be a proper name, Azazel, referring to a demon or to Satan himself. In fact, the very next chapter refers to “goat demons” (17:7). If this identification is correct, the idea would be that the people’s uncleanness is returned to Satan, meaning that he can no longer use it to damage or condemn them.

In any case, the two-goat ceremony effectively accomplished its God-given purpose: the tabernacle and the people were cleansed. This did not mean that every individual Israelite was declared righteous before God or eternally saved or even personally forgiven for particular acts of disobedience. Nor did it mean that an animal sacrifice could substitute for a human being’s eternal death penalty. Note verse 30: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins” (v. 30). The word for atonement (kpr) refers broadly to reconciliation, but the word for cleansing (thr) more specifically identifies this reconciliation in terms of ritual purification.

So the Day of Atonement provided external, ceremonial purification for Israel as a nation in a special covenant relationship with God. It renewed that relationship annually by removing the ritual defilement that would preclude Yahweh’s presence among them.


Yet the symbolism of the Day of Atonement also functioned as a graphic object lesson concerning ultimate issues that affect every human being. The ritual with the first goat typified our need for propitiation, the satisfaction of divine wrath through a qualified substitutionary blood-shedding sacrifice. The dismissal of the second goat pictured expiation, the remitting of the sinner’s guilt as a result of propitiation.

Hebrews 9–10 develops at length the typological significance of the Day of Atonement. This passage teaches that the ritual’s ceremonial nature and repetitiveness demonstrate its insufficiency for removing actual sin. By way of contrast, Jesus the Messiah, the sinless High Priest, entered the heavenly Most Holy Place and presented his own blood, effecting eternal redemption. Consequently, those who trust in Jesus can be confident that their sins have indeed been forgiven and that they enjoy a restored relationship with the holy God. They also have every reason to persevere in faith, over against vain confidence in their own works.

This is the great truth that the mass of Jews remains blinded to: the Day of Atonement is fulfilled in Yeshua! All around the globe many of these dear people will begin to celebrate Yom Kippur at sunset tomorrow, Friday, September 29, 2017. They’ll attempt to seek God by fasting and praying and attending synagogue services. Since they won’t be sprinkling goat blood, they won’t even enjoy the external cleansing of Leviticus 16. Much less the deeper cleansing of the heart! Will you join me in praying that their eyes will be opened to their Messiah, the true sin-bearer?

Photo Credit: Vladyslav Dukhin,

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