“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you,” says the Lord. The annual ritual of the Day of Atonement was a major event in the life of Israel. It had significant cultic and theological implications for them, and, strangely enough, has significant theological implications for us as well. The Day of Atonement foreshadows the perfect sacrifice and the perfect priesthood of Jesus.
The passage has traditionally be broken down into five sections. A quick look at them may help us understand the flow of the text as a whole:
I. Introduction (v. 1-2) – in which Aaron is warned not to approach God inappropriately
II. Specification of the Materials Needed (v. 3-5) – the priest is informed of the animals and garments that he is going to need to make this sacrifice.
III. Summary of the Ceremony (v. 6-10) – an outline of the sacrifices and rituals and some explanation of their importance and significance.
IV. Description of the Ceremony (v. 11-28) – this section can be broken down further into three parts
A. Laws About Blood Manipulation (11-19)
B. Laws About the Scapegoat (20-22)
C. Laws About Cleansing (23-28)
V. Establishment of a Statute (v. 29-34) – in which God declares this ritual a perpetual statue to be observed annually
The details of the text are straightforward in their description and follow similar patterns and expectations of the previous sacrifices delineated in the earlier part of the book. It’s not necessary to rehash all of that at this point. It is useful, however, to highlight two significant theological contributions of this text: (1) the purification of the priesthood and (2) the purification of the community.
The Day of Atonement was another means by which God sought to deal with sin. We must remember two major themes in Leviticus are God’s holiness and God’s grace. God is so holy that He cannot tolerate and certainly cannot dwell among sin. Yet, God so desires to be with His people that He provides for them a means to establish and renew a relationship with Him. That means is the sacrificial system. The Day of Atonement seeks to address the sins of the whole community. Each person was required and expected to deal regularly with their own moral and spiritual failures, to offer sacrifices regularly, but there is a communal aspect to sin as well. The whole community, not just each person individually, was contaminated with sin. Such sin had to be regularly addressed and so God established the ritual of the Day of Atonement. The annual sacrifice intended to make atonement for the community and remove their communal sins from the presence of God.