The Atonement and the Scapegoat: Leviticus 16 by Dr. Kenneth Mathews
The ritual "Day of Atonement" (Hebrew Yom Kippur), described in Leviticus 16, was the most holy day of worship in the Hebrew calendar. It was also the most complicated in terms of ritual performance. A ceremonial ritual conveys a powerful image in which there is a correspondence between a symbol (i.e., ritual) and the thing symbolized (i.e., message). On the Day of Atonement, there was a correspondence between the parts of the ritual and the spiritual meaning they represented. A wedding ceremony today with its ritual features has the same effect on the participants and congregation.
There were two features that distinguished this day of worship. First, it was the one day of the year that the high priest, and only the high priest, entered the Most Holy Place (Holy of Holies) of the Tent of Meeting (tabernacle) where he presented sacrificial blood as atoning sacrifice for the sins of Israel and the purification of the Tent of Meeting.
Inside the Most Holy Place was the Ark of the Covenant (a rectangular box) that represented the resident presence of God. The high priest sprinkled blood on the lid ("mercy seat") of the Ark of the Covenant, achieving the forgiveness of sin for the priest and the congregation.
Next, the high priest sprinkled blood in the outer room of the Tent of Meeting. The blood "decontaminated" the ceremonial impurities accumulated by the sins and the ceremonial uncleanness committed for the year. The purification of the Tent of Meeting was national in scope, giving a comprehensive purging of sins and impurities.
Second, the Day of Atonement included a ceremony that involved the expulsion of a living animal from the camp, traditionally translated "scapegoat."
The various aspects of the Day's ritual provide a rich, multi-dimensional understanding and appreciation of the atonement we have in Jesus. NT allusions to this Day give a pictorial anticipation of the death and mediatorial role of Christ whose sacrificial blood achieves our salvation and sanctification (e.g., Rom. 3:25; Heb. 10:10; 13:11-12).
Hebrews 9-10 give a sustained explanation for the typological significance of the Day of Atonement and the parallel ministry of Christ. The author refers to the roles of Christ as eternal high priest, perfect animal sacrifice, and his blood's perpetual purging of sin and corruption of the heavenly Tent of Meeting by the sprinkling of his own blood based on the one-time act of his death and ascension into the heavenly throne room of God (Heb. 9:1-10:18).
The provision made by Christ enables us to enter the heavenly Most Holy Place where we offer our prayers to God (Heb. 10:19-20). However, the author does not refer to the scapegoat. What was the reason for the scapegoat, and what is its meaning for the ministry of Christ?
The meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain; it occurs only in our chapter (vv. 8, 10, 26). Some versions render it the traditional "scapegoat," based on the proposed meaning "the goat that departs." Others simply transliterate the Hebrew azazel or Azazel, referring to a location in the desert or to the name of a goat-demon in the wilderness. The suggestion that it names a goat-demon is unlikely since there is a specific prohibition against making an offering to a goat-demon in Lev. 17:7. Scapegoat probably is the best choice since it reflects the role that the goat played in the ceremony.
By the high priest placing his hands on the head of the goat and confessing the sins of Israel, the priest symbolized the transference of the people's sin to the goat (vv. 20-22). Together the goat sacrificed and the living scapegoat showed that the goats were substituted for the people and that they bore the penalty of the sin.
The sacrificed goat perished and the scapegoat took away the impurities and sins to the wilderness (vv. 8-10). The scapegoat pictures Jesus who bore our sins, and by taking them away, frees us from the guilt of our sins.
As in the case of the wedding ceremony, the vows of committed love expressed by the groom and bride do not automatically mean they are authentic. Performing the ritual on the Day of Atonement did not robotically ensure forgiveness without sincere remorse for their sins.
The people prepared themselves for the day by humbling themselves in penance before God (vv. 29, 31). As we approach Good Friday, we are sorrowful at our sins and the death Jesus suffered for us. Yet, the eventual "good" that the cross brings for us should incite us to give ourselves more fully in devotion to the Lord.