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Basic Bible: The Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16:1-16

The Day of Atonement is the most important day of the year for Israel because it was on this day that the high priest was to enter into the holy of holies (the presence of God) and make atonement for the sins of the people.

In the text before us, Aaron, the high priest, is required to offer a bullock as a sin offering for himself.

The manner in which this bullock sin offering was to be made is similar to, but different from, the bullock sin offering which he made when he assumed the office of high priest (see Ex. 29) or the bullock offering which would later be offered during the feast of weeks. The difference in the bullock offering on the day of atonement and its significance is evident when one considers the structure and content of the tabernacle.

Animals to be sacrificed were brought to the entrance to the tabernacle. There is but one entry through the heavy curtains that serve as an outer wall of the tabernacle. Once inside the tabernacle, one would view the brazen altar upon which sacrifices were burned. A tent-like structure (the holy place) would be seen at the far end of the tabernacle. A laver positioned between the holy place and the brazen altar would also be seen by all who would be near the altar. The holy place was off limits to all except the priests. We know from scripture that it was divided into two sections which were separated by a veil. A priest entering the holy place would see a table for shewbread, a lampstand, and a golden altar where incense was burned, and the veil. Beyond the veil was the holy of holies. No one, with the exception of the high priest on the day of atonement could enter the holy of holies. Within the holy of holies was the ark of the covenant which contained the stones upon which the ten commandments were inscribed. The mercy seat (covering the contents of the ark) was topped by two facing cherubim with wings outstretched toward each other.

The bullock was brought into the tabernacle where Aaron and his sons placed their hands upon its head and then killed it and collected its blood. On every occasion with the exception of the day of atonement, the blood of the bullock was sprinkled upon the horns (the outer projections at the corners) of the brazen altar. On the day of atonement, the high priest took the blood into the holy place and, after proper preparation, entered the holy of holies and sprinkled the blood upon and in front of the mercy seat.

The high priest could not simply enter the holy of holies. The holy of holies was God’s dwelling place. Anyone who looked upon God’s holiness would die. Aaron was to prepare incense which would be burned before the Lord (see Ex. 30:34-36). The high priest was to take this incense and a censer filled with burning coals from the golden altar and then enter into the holy of holies. Immediately upon passing through the veil, he put the incense upon the fire. The holy of holies was filled with a cloud which covered the mercy seat. Shielded by the cloud, Aaron was to dip his finger in the bullock’s blood and sprinkle the blood with his finger. He was to sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat and in the area between the veil and the mercy seat seven times. The blood of the bullock was of the animal that Aaron and his sons had placed their hands upon and killed. The blood was shed for Aaron and his sons. The cloud prevented Aaron from seeing God’s righteousness, allowing the high priest to live. The covering of blood made it impossible for God to see Aaron’s unrighteousness. When God saw the seven sprinklings, He saw the blood which He would shed upon the cross. Aaron was spared, not by the blood of an ox, but, by the blood of the Lamb that the Father would supply.

When Aaron had sprinkled the bullock’s blood for himself and his house, he killed the goat of the children of Israel which was for the Lord. This sacrifice was for the people. Acting as an intercessory, Aaron sprinkled the blood of the goat before the mercy seat and upon the mercy seat seven times. When Aaron entered the holy of holies to sprinkle the blood, both that of the bullock and that of the goat, no person except Aaron was to be present within the walls of the tabernacle.

The picture which God has placed before us is that of the high priest and him alone coming before the Lord. The bullock sacrifice is for the sins of the high priest (and his family) and for the unknown sins of the people which have become known (Lev. 4:13-23), while the goat sacrifice is for known sin of the people. We note that the blood is sprinkled upon both the mercy seat and eastward before the mercy seat. The blood that covered unknown sins (the blood of the bullock) and the blood that covered known sins (the blood of the goat) covered the high priest’s approach the Lord God. The coverage of sin and coverage of one’s approach to God is complete —signified by the seven sprinklings.

New Testament believers know the Lord Jesus Christ as our high priest who gave His blood such that we may boldly approach the Lord God Almighty. We are called to share the knowledge of His gift.

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