Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16 describes the Day of Atonement, an offering carried out once a year by Aaron and his priestly descendants. The ritual began with the priest removing his ornate priestly garments, washing himself with water, and putting on plain linen garments. The sacrifice itself actually involved three animals: a bull and two goats.

The bull was slaughtered as a sin offering for the priest himself and his household. The priest then entered behind the inner curtain of the tabernacle, the most holy place, bringing with him fine incense and the blood of the slaughtered bull. This was the only time each year that the priest ever entered this inner most part of the tabernacle, the place which represented the very presence of God. The incense was apparently for the priest's own protection (16:13, perhaps the cloud of smoke serving as some kind of barrier even as the priest stands in the very presence of God?) and the blood was to be sprinkled on and in front of the mercy seat as a way of cleansing this most holy place from the priest's sins accumulated throughout the year.

The two goats served as a sin offering for the people of Israel. The priest would cast lots over the two goats to see which would be designated for God and which for Azazel (more on that in a minute). The goat designated for God was slaughtered and its blood was brought into the most holy place and placed on and in front of the mercy seat just as the bull's blood and was meant to cleanse the inner sanctuary of the people's sin accumulated over the course of the year. The priest would then use both the bull's blood and the goat's blood to cleanse the altar at the front of the tabernacle as well.

The priest would then lay his hands on the second goat, the one designated for Azazel, and confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel. This goat was then sent off into the wilderness to "bear all their iniquities on itself into a remote area." There is much debate about what "Azazel" means. Some think it may be the name of a demon roaming in the wilderness while others think it may be a name for the wilderness itself. The simplest explanation is probably that the word is a combination of the Hebrew words for "goat" and "to go away". It is the goat that is sent away carrying Israel's sins; or as many English translations term it, the scapegoat.

Although the meaning of the sacrifices and rituals in Leviticus can often be opaque to us, this one actually seems to be relatively clear. Much like the regular sin offerings, the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement were meant to purge the tabernacle of Israel's sins both through the cleansing agent of blood and now also by being carried away on the scapegoat. Unlike other sin offerings, this was the only day each year when the priest entered the most holy place behind the second curtain of the tabernacle. The presence of God was so holy and tremendous that one could not simply enter the most holy place on a whim. But even this most holy place had to be cleansed of Israel's sin from time to time so as not to drive God away. So the priest entered by the blood of bulls and goats this one day a year to cleanse the inner sanctuary.

It is specifically this Day of Atonement ritual on which the Epistle to the Hebrews builds much of its portrayal of Christ as our high priest. When the priest entered the earthly tabernacle, Hebrews argues, he is entering only a copy and shadow of the real tabernacle of heaven where God's presence truly dwells. Christ, on the other hand, has entered the true most holy place in heaven. Much as the blood of bulls and goats allowed the high priest to enter into the inner sanctuary, so Christ's own blood has allowed him to ascend into heaven and be seated at the right hand of the Father. Since Christ perpetually dwells in the presence of God he does not have to make this sacrifice year after year but is able to intercede for us continually. Furthermore, by accomplishing all this in our own human flesh, Christ has also cleansed us and opened the way for us into the very presence of God.

This ritual and the argument which Hebrews builds on it surely seem foreign to us for a number of reasons. Perhaps not least of these reasons is that we don't really regard the presence of God as all that holy or tremendous - at least not in the way these ancient Israelites did. We walk casually into our churches, take our seat, and expect God to show up in a mighty way after only a few worship choruses. We pray and expect that God will listen and grant our requests. Come to think of it, isn't God present everywhere? So what's all the fuss about with the curtains and the incense and the blood of bulls and goats?

As a result, perhaps we miss out on just how good the good news of Hebrews is. If Leviticus as a whole, and the Day of Atonement ritual in particular, teach us anything it is that the presence of a holy God is not something to be taken lightly. While Hebrews proclaims the good news that Christ has opened the way for us into the presence of God, the Levitical roots of Hebrews' argument reminds us of what an enormous gift that is. After all, it took not the merely the blood of bulls and goats but the blood of the Son of God to make it happen.

Honestly, I'm not exactly sure where Leviticus and Hebrews are leading me this week.  I have a lot of thinking to do about these passages between now and Sunday. But I do know that this theme of just how precious God's presence is seems to keep coming up as I've been preaching through Exodus and Leviticus. In Exodus, Moses knows that it is only the presence of God which distinguishes Israel from all the other peoples of the earth and as such it is worth wrestling for. In Leviticus, the whole purpose of the tabernacle and sacrificial system seems to be about providing an appropriate place for God's presence to dwell in the midst of Israel's camp. It seems to me that the Church also should recognize that the only thing which sets us apart is the presence of God transforming us and as such we should do whatever we have to in order to provide an appropriate place for God's presence to dwell in our midst.

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