Its importance is highlighted at the end of the chapter: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins (Leviticus 16:30). Remember that the sin offerings were for the atonement of involuntary sins (Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15). What remedy was available for intentional sins, then? And what would devout worshipers do when they had to suffer the effects of tabernacle contamination from a few hardened sinners who had no desire to repent? What could they do to get rid of the ritual contamination left by the sins of others like Nadab and Abihu? Yahweh’s merciful answer is found in the Day of Atonement.
All those who afflict themselves (that is, who truly repent and deny themselves carnal pleasure to focus sorrowfully on their sin), will find atonement on that day. They will find forgiveness and renewal to begin a new year. And complete atonement will reach even the tabernacle itself: “He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly” (Leviticus 16:33). All of the tabernacle, all the priests and all the people will be clean and consecrated like new.
Notice that there are several important differences with the rituals and sacrifices that we have seen up to this point.
At the beginning, Aaron does not wear the high priest’s holy clothing; instead, he wears holy linen clothes (Leviticus 16:4). According to many commentators, that represents the humility with which he will go before Yahweh and ask His forgiveness for his own sins and those of the people. He will dress again in the high priest’s beautiful robes when he presents the burnt offerings for himself and the people at the end of the ritual (Leviticus 16:24).
As he is dressed humbly, he presents a total of five sacrificial animals: two for himself and his household (the bull for a sin offering and the ram for a burnt offering) and three for Israel (two male goats for the sin offering and a ram for the burnt offering). First, he must make atonement for himself and his household with the bull as a sin offering before he can offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel (Leviticus 16:6).
After the atonement for his own sin and impurities, Aaron takes the two male goats for Israel and presents them before Yahweh at the entrance to the tent of meeting: “And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel” (Leviticus 16:8). Azazel is not the name of some god but the transcription of a Hebrew word which means “the male goat that departs”. The first goat will be sacrificed as a sin offering for the people; the second, “shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:22).
Now Aaron continues to make atonement for himself and his household through the only ritual which brings blood into the Most Holy Place. (In fact, it is the only ritual in which someone has permission to enter the Most Holy Place except for taking down the tabernacle and moving the ark during the travels in the desert!) With a cloud of aromatic incense for protection from Yahweh’s devastating holiness, Aaron enters the Most Holy Place to sprinkle blood on and in front of the mercy seat (the cover of the ark, unseen by him because of the cloud) seven times with the blood of the bull for his atonement (Leviticus 16:11-14).
He leaves the tabernacle for the entrance to the tent of meeting (of course, he must wash his hands and feet at the bronze basin when he passes it). And he returns with the blood of the male goat chosen by Yahweh (and of course, he washes his hands and feet again when he passes the bronze basin). He enters the most holy place just like the first time, but now he uses the blood of the male goat to atone for the sin of the people (Leviticus 16:15). “Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses” (Leviticus 16:16).
After making atonement for all the sanctuary, the tent of meeting and the altar, Aaron puts two hands on the head of the remaining male goat (normally one hand is placed on the substitute’s head, but this animal will not be sacrificed). He confesses all the iniquities and transgressions of the people of Israel, not just their unintentional sins. And the animal is taken far away, carrying all of their sins, to a remote area where it will not return to the people (Leviticus 16:20-22).
Afterwards, washed again and dressed in the clothing of the high priest, Aaron presents two rams as burnt offerings, one for him and one for the people (Leviticus 16:24). And he completes the earlier sin offering of the other male goat (Leviticus 16:25, 27).
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) will be a yearly ritual. Passover will be an annual reminder of Yahweh’s redemption of His people; Yom Kippur will make atonement so that the relationship between Yahweh and His people can be kept holy and pure (Leviticus 16:34).
And for Christians, the ritual and sacrifices of the Day of Atonement have great meaning because they have been fulfilled once for all by our Lord Jesus Christ. If you have time today, read Hebrews 9:1 – 10:18 in the New Testament to see the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement in the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross for all of our sin and defilement.