“For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.”
I must have been around 11 years old when one of the rabbis at the synagogue I attended taught us something I previously had been unaware of. He told us that being forgiven by God was very important. He was quite serious: 20 years later I still remember his sombre tone as he exhorted us to make amends for any wrongs we might have on our conscience. The rabbi gave us an example: perhaps you’ve slipped a candy into your pocket while at the corner shop and then walked out without paying for it. You need to go back to the shop and discreetly place 50 cents on the counter. God will see, and you will be forgiven. The designated period to do this was in the lead-up to Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement.1 If you asked God for forgiveness and sought to make amends where possible during the Yom Kippur period, you were forgiven.
Today, as a Jewish follower of Jesus, I look back with a mixture of intrigue and sadness at the teaching I received. Like most of what is taught in synagogues, it accords well with modern-day Rabbinic Judaism, but not so well with the Torah. Atonement as explained in the Torah is not really about people making amends for wrongs they’ve done. Atonement is often spoken of passively. It’s something that is done for, not by, the person or thing being atoned.2 In Leviticus 16 we read that “atonement [shall] be made for you”. Throughout this chapter, the Israelites are only ever spoken of as passive recipients of the atonement that is being done—it is the priests who are doing the work. The job of the Israelites is to observe; to take seriously the atonement that is being made, which results in their being “clean before the Lord from all [their] sins”.
But what does ‘atonement’ actually mean here? At a glance, these verses look as if they’re telling the Israelites that the atonement that happens on Yom Kippur is the cleansing of all their sins. In context though, we see this clearly isn’t the case. Whilst the atonement spoken of in Leviticus 16 results in the cleanness of the Israelites, atonement itself is an activity in which God’s dwelling place is cleansed. If God’s dwelling place is cleansed by the priest, then the Israelites will be clean. This is what atonement actually means here: cleansing the house of God so that the Israelite community will be clean.
It could be illustrated like this. Every day a family’s children run into the house with muddy feet, and every day they get bathed so their feet are no longer muddy. But after a while the carpet needs a thorough clean, so that the house-proud (and sane) parents can put up with their kids running in and out. Likewise, in God’s house, the Israelites come and go each day to get their sins forgiven. But the house itself is contaminated by their sin, and a holy God can’t stand dwelling there unless it gets a big spring clean. If God abandons the house, his children can’t be bathed daily and so would remain unclean. God’s house needs to be cleaned out by the priest so that the Israelites can continue to be cleansed from their sins.3 This is why the priest cleans God’s house, by sprinkling blood first around the Holy Place (16:14-16a), then around the tent of meeting (16:16b), and then around the altar (16:18-19). Then he takes all the ‘rubbish’ out of the house, places it in the ‘garbage truck’ (the live goat—verse 20), and it gets taken far away to become landfill (v. 21).
Whilst this was a very gracious provision from God, we know that it was only a shadow of the reality to come in Christ. The priest had to make atonement annually, because the contamination of sin kept getting in the way of God dwelling with his people. Only the blood of Jesus, the sinless high priest, was sufficient to eradicate the contamination permanently. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, God can now dwell with forgiven sinners like us, which he does by his Spirit. The church is now the cleansed temple of God, and we therefore need to be especially vigilant in keeping God’s house clean. I hope my Rabbi comes to know the true meaning of Yom Kippur: Christ’s blood has made permanent atonement, resulting in true forgiveness.
- In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur comes nine days after Rosh Hashanah (the New Year festival). The Yom Kippur ‘period’ spans this time. ↩
- See, for example, Leviticus 12:7-8; 14:19, 29; 15:30; 19:22. ↩
- Like most good illustrations, this one has been stolen. My uncle Martin Pakula deserves the credit here. For an excellent treatment of Leviticus 16 by a Jewish believer (through whom I was converted), check out http://blog.hillsbiblechurch.org/2011/06/05/the-privilege-of-prayer-part-1/. ↩