Here we will consider the Yom Kippur offering (rendered in English as “Day of Atonement”) and how we, as Orthodox Christians, are to understand it in the light of Christ. For many of us, the book of Leviticus with its numerous sacrifices proves a challenging read and it can often be hard to draw much, if anything, out of these texts in our modern day. While these texts were of great interest to ancient writers, replete with symbols, some of us may struggle to make our way through them.
Given this, there is much in the sacrifices and rituals and liturgies of the Jewish liturgical calendar that is lost upon us. Here we will go through the sacrifices of Yom Kippur and glean what insights we can. The first and perhaps most unfortunate thing about the Old Testament sacrifices is that we often misunderstand them as serving for the interpretative key to our faith in Christ’s sacrifice. This is an easy but yet grave error to fall into. It is Christ who is the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5.17). St. Paul in speaking of the sacrifices teaches,
“For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things.” Hebrews 10.1
With this in mind let us turn to the Yom Kippur sacrifice and what it is that God was teaching the Israelites on this most holy of days in the Jewish calendar. We read about the feast in general,
“In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and shall do no work, the native and the stranger who abides among you. For in this day he shall make an atonement for you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord, and you shall be cleansed. This shall be to you a most holy Sabbath [a Sabbath of Sabbaths], a rest, and you shall humble your souls; it is a perpetual ordinance.” Leviticus 16. 29-31.
This feast, a Sabbath of Sabbaths, would become the center of the Jewish liturgical calendar and it involved two particular elements. First, it would involve the Scapegoat and then it would also involve the cleansing and purification of the Sanctuary, the priests and the people with the blood of the sin-offering. Therefore, two goats would be brought forth and they would cast lots which essentially means they would roll the dice as to which goat would serve which function.
“He [Aaron] shall take the two goats and place them before the Lord by the door of the tabernacle of witness. Then Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring forward the goat on which the lot for the Lord fell and shall offer him for a sin-offering. And the goat upon which the lot of the scapegoat came, he shall present alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon him, so as to send him away as a scapegoat, He shall send him into the wilderness.” Leviticus 16.7-10.
This last text is the general direction of the day’s events but let us focus on each of these elements one at a time. First, let us note that the goat upon which the ‘Lot of The Lord’ fell would be offered as the sin-offering. Meanwhile the other goat will serve as the scapegoat. At this point, many of us almost unconsciously fill in the blanks thinking we know exactly how this sacrifice is to work. In fact, the exact opposite of what we expect to happen is what occurs. Let us first consider the scapegoat:
“And Aaron shall lay his hands on the head of the live goat, and he shall declare over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their unrighteousness, and all their sins; and he shall lay them upon the head of the live goat, and shall send him by the hand of a ready man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear their unrighteousnesses upon him into a desert land; and Aaron shall send away the goat into the wilderness.” Leviticus 16:21,22.
For many of us reading this text we almost anticipate that the goat upon which the sins and iniquities of the Israelites were ‘laid upon’ would be subsequently killed. In turn we find that this does not happen at all. First we should note from above that the scapegoat is not the sin-offering, they are two very different sacrifices. There is a sin-offering (that which is “The Lot of The Lord”) but this is not the offering that has the sins of the people prayed over it. The sins of the people are prayed over the scapegoat. We then anticipate (given our modern juridical presuppositions) that the scapegoat, having had the sins of the people prayed upon it, is about to be killed. In fact, it is taken out into the wilderness away from the assembly of the people, away from the Temple.
Let us delve deeper into what this all means. The Lord has previously established with the Israelites that they would erect the Temple (first the Tabernacle of Witness) so that He may dwell among them especially as symbolized by the Bread of the Presence which was always kept in the temple. We read in Exodus:
“And thou shalt make me a sanctuary, and I will appear among you.” Exodus 25.8.
“At the door of the tabernacle of witness before the Lord; wherein I will be known to you from now on, so as to speak to you. And I will there give orders to the children of Israel, and I will be sanctified in my glory. And I will sanctify the tabernacle of testimony and the altar, and I will sanctify Aaron and his sons, to minister as priests to me. And I will be called upon among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, to be called upon by them, and to be their God.” Exodus 29.42-46.
God has clearly indicated to the Israelites that He will manifest His presence among them in the Temple and Tabernacle of Testimony, on the Sanctuary and the Ark of The Covenant. It is for this reason He has ordained such specific instructions about their construction, maintenance and the many festivals performed therein. If anything, the Temple served as the center of the life of the Israelites and we see this evidenced by the disastrous ruin of the Temple and the constant recourse to rebuilding the temple throughout the Old Testament.
The implications of the scapegoat’s being cast away from the assembly and from the temple are many. First and foremost, we must recall that this happens after the sins of the people are prayed upon the scapegoat, at which point it is cast out. With wide eyes, the Israelites would watch as their sins had the scapegoat cast away from the very presence of God among them, the Temple (or tabernacle). The message would clearly ring through the minds of the watching Israelites. Sin separates, sin estranges, sin divorces one of God and His presence. It is not that God (the tabernacle or Temple) is moving or traveling elsewhere but rather the one bearing sin is journeying afar off from God and His Presence. We see this no more clearly than in the parable of the Prodigal Son but it seems this part of the rite would anticipate that parable. This understanding of sin is found throughout the fathers of the Church when they spoke of sin and its disastrous consequences:
“For to the extent that he [Adam] withdrew from life, he likewise drew near to death. For God is life, and the privation of life is death. Therefore Adam prepared death for himself through his withdrawal from God, in accord with what is written, ‘Behold those who remove themselves from you are destroyed’ (Ps 72.27). Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves by a wicked intention.” St. Basil the Great. Homily that God is Not The Creator of Evil
“Now sin is nothing else than alienation from God, Who is the true and only life.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 13.2.
Let us now consider the goat which is the Lot of The Lord and is to be the sin-offering. First, we note that it is written that the Lot of The Lord fell upon this goat meaning that it is now The Lord’s goat and that it also represents the Lord Himself. So what was done with the Lord’s goat? First Aaron made atonement for him and his family and then we read,
“He shall kill the goat for the sin-offering that is for the people, before the Lord; He shall bring in of its blood within the veil and shall do with its blood as he did with the blood of the calf and shall sprinkle its blood on the mercy-seat, in front of the mercy-seat. He shall make atonement for the sanctuary on account of the uncleanness of the children of Israel and for their trespasses in the matter of all their sins; and thus shall he do to the tabernacle of witness established among them in the midst of their uncleanness. And there shall be no man in the tabernacle of witness when he goes in to make atonement in the holy place, until he shall have come out; He shall make atonement for himself and for his house and for all the congregation of the children of Israel. He shall come forth to the altar that is before the Lord, He shall make atonement upon it; He shall take of the blood of the calf and of the blood of the goat and shall put it on the horns of the altar round about. He shall sprinkle some of the blood upon it seven times with his finger and shall purge it and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.” Leveticus 16.15-19.
The sin-offering is killed but it does not have the sins of the people prayed upon it nor is this the climax of the liturgical service. Rather this continues with the subsequent sprinkling of the blood of the Lord’s goat (the blood, one could say, of The Lord) upon the altar and upon the entire sanctuary to atone for the sins of the children of Israel. But what exactly would this have meant to the children of Israel watching this happen before their eyes? We are given a clue in the next chapter of Leviticus,
“For the life of flesh is its blood and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for its blood shall make atonement for the soul.” Leviticus 17.11.
On the one hand people of Israel have seen that their sin is their willful separation from God and from His Life-giving presence, but on the other they have seen its reparation or it solution. In order to atone for their souls the blood of the goat of The Lord or the Life of the Lord’s goat, representative of the Life of The Lord Himself, was sprinkled upon the sanctuary and all around. The true sin-offering is the Life of the Lord. This teaches us and them that the solution to sin (now represented by the wandering goat in the desert away from the Lord) is to partake of the very Life of the Lord Himself once more. The sin-offering has nothing to do with transaction or with fulfilling payment but rather with the treatment for sin which is The Life of The Lord. St. Cyril of Alexandria would speak similarly about the slaying of the sacrifices,
“And the slaying of the sacrifices would signify the translation towards God from human life, which is not necessary to be made in death, but in a figure representing death according to the putting off of the things of this life.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, PG 68. 1013B.
While sin destroys and separates from God, our voluntary death to our desires and the elements that bind us become that which gives birth for us into the very life of God. Of course, baptism serves as the hinge-point of this entry into the life of God and our voluntary death to ourselves (cf. Romans 6.3). The setting aright of sin is to partake once more of the Life of God for this is what we were created for. This becomes clear when we look to St. Paul’s words about the fulfillment of the Old Testament types once more in his letter to the Hebrews;
“He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Christ’s Death Perfects the Sanctified and every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” Hebrews 10.9-14
This is a loaded text but there is one thing that ultimately stands out about St. Paul’s description of the consummation of the sacrifices. When Christ had offered one sacrifice forever, this did not somehow fulfill some payment or some debt of justice. Rather, it is said that He then ‘sat down at the right hand of God’. This sitting at the right hand is the culmination and consummation of the sacrifices once and for all. If the sacrifice of Yom Kippur shows the sin-offering offering its participants re-entry into the Life of God then Christ’s ascension as human is the ultimate fulfillment of this type. Rather than the blood of The Lord’s goat bringing us to a knowledge of the consequences of sin and its reparation here we are genuinely ministered the healing of our sins. Christ’s sitting at the right hand of God as one of us restores us to our first estate where we had been in the bosom of The Father. Christ, the True Son of The Father is ever and always in the bosom of The Father and He returns us to this place. No longer are we ensnared in the desert of our wiles and desires but now the Good Shepherd has come to us and met us where we are that He might lift us back with Him to The Father. Here we can come to understand Christ’s precision when He speaks to Mary Magdalene, “I ascend to My Father and your Father (Jn 20.17)”, the Father to Whom He has returned us by His economy in the flesh.
Thus we can see, if our gaze is fixated on Christ, all that the Yom Kippur sacrifice has to teach us and taught the Jews carrying out the sacrifice. Sin kills, sin destroys, sin separates. Sin is itself that separation from God and the severance of our relationship with Him. The only remedy for this ail which we have brought upon ourselves is to partake once more of the Life of God which Christ has opened a path unto by His Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and the sending of The Holy Spirit. The Yom Kippur sacrifice has no notion of a goat slain to bear the punishment of sin but rather shows us a goat cast from the presence of God by our own willful choice. It also shows us that the sin-offering is slain but that no sins are prayed over it. Rather, it is slain and then its life (its blood), representing the Life of The Lord, is that which makes us whole once more where our sins had rendered us asunder. Subsequently, we too must take up this path and offer ourselves to God for He is the source of all things. We are mistaken if we take our life to lie in our bodily pleasures, our senses, our comfort, our career aspirations or any of the other things we become wrapped up in. Our life lies in God and in our voluntary putting off our life, we become alive to Him Who is Life. St. Cyril teaches,
“For we are conformed to the young bull and to the sheep, as among the tame animals, dying to the world through the putting to death of the flesh, in order that we might live to God through the Gospel way of life, and ascending as in a truly spiritual and most fragrant sacrifice through the Son to the Father. And the slaying of the sacrifices would signify the translation towards God from human life, which is not necessary to be made in death, but in a figure representing death according to the putting off of the things of this life.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, PG 68. 1013B.
May God grant us that we learn to let go of those things that chain and bind us in the wilderness and that we return to the bosom of The Father as did the prodigal son.