Leviticus 16 And The Day Of Atonement


We are approaching the most holy day in the Biblical calendar – Yom Kippur.  The solemn ritual of this day in Biblical times is described in Leviticus 16, and as Charles Feinberg wrote, “…no more significant truths could possibly engage the mind of the believer than those set forth in this chapter of Leviticus. It is admitted on all hands that Leviticus 16 is one of the mountain peaks of the Scriptures. The Day of Atonement was the most important day in the Mosaic system, because on that day the removal of sin was given its highest expression.”[1]

Let’s have a look at the ritual itself:[2] The Day of Atonement was the only day that the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. There were two sin offerings on that day. First, after repeated bathing and washings, the High Priest exchanged his usual garments of glory and beauty for the simple linen robes prescribed for the occasion[3] and came down into the inner court, where his own sin offering, a young bullock, was waiting. Then the High Priest turned to the people’s sin offering.[4]  Two identical goats were brought to him. Placing himself by the north side of the altar, and in full view of the worshippers who attended in the outer court, one of the goats was placed at his right hand, and the other at his left hand. Two small tablets of gold were cast into an urn, on one of which was engraved the word “la-Jehovah” (for the Lord), and on the other the mysterious word “la-Azazel” (for Azazel). The urn was shaken, and the High Priest thrust both his hands in at the same time, taking up one lot in each, and placing the one in his right hand on the head of the goat at his right, and the one in his left hand on the head of the goat at his left. A crimson thread was tied round the head of the one on which the lot fell for Azazel. Half of this thread would be removed before the animal was sent away, and would be tied to the door of the sanctuary.

After the lot of the two goats had been fixed, the High Priest sacrificed the goat of the people’s sin offering, upon which the lot fell “for the Lord”, entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled it’s blood once upwards and seven times downwards, so that it fell upon and before the mercy seat. After the atonement had been thus made with the blood of the goat “for the Lord”, the High Priest came to the goat “for Azazel”. He “shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by a man that is in readiness into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a solitary land.”[5] The goat had to be led away by a designated man to the designated location called “wilderness” (there was a distance of five Sabbath day’s journey to that place). Different precautions were taken to make sure that the goat was led there and would never return. At equal intervals along the road, from the Mount of Olives, to the designated location, ten stations were set up. After the man and the goat reached the tenth station, the man would push the goat over a cliff, so that it fell to its death.

Meanwhile, the High Priest was waiting at the Temple for the sign that the sacrifice was completed. The Mishna tells us that once the goat was dead, the crimson thread tied to the door of the sanctuary would turn white symbolizing the promise of Isaiah:

“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.”


Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this ceremony was absolutely unique. Therefore, this chapter, and this ritual concerning the “goat for Azazel” in particular, have always occupied the minds of the interpreters, both Christian and Jewish alike. “This ceremony, which is described in such fullness, is never mentioned again in the Old Testament… As a matter of fact, it has no parallel in the Mosaic legislation or in the heathen world. It is unique, most singular and impressive… But what the exact meaning of this ritual was, continues to be one of the most vexing questions.”[6]

Even today, the image of the scapegoat is still a matter of much debate and discussion among the scholars much more learned than I, therefore I won’t offer here my own opinion on this difficult and delicate subject.[7]  However, I would share with you a very peculiar quotation from the Talmud[8] referring to the last 40 years before the destruction of the Temple (i.e. starting from the year 30 AD):  “During the forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, the lot for God did not arise in the High Priest right hand at all.  So too, the strip of crimson wool that was tied to the head of the goat that was sent to Azazel, did not turn white, and the westernmost lamp of the candelabrum did not burn continually. And the doors of the Sanctuary opened by themselves as a sign that they would soon be opened by enemies”[9]

As Dorothy Healy writes, “having a place in the Talmud indicates that the knowledge of these events was accepted by the widespread Jewish community”[10]. As mentioned previously, the ritual described here was observed in the second Temple period, and the quotation from the Talmud clearly shows that something had fundamentally changed in this Yom Kippur ritual after 30 AD, and that the Jewish community were aware of this change.


During the month of Elul, before Yom Kippur, Jews recite special prayers called Selichot – the prayers of confession and repentance. As we begin our Selichot time, we say: מַה־נֹּאמַר֙ מַה־נְּדַבֵּ֖ר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּ֑ק – What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves?  Surprisingly, we find exactly the same words in Genesis 44, when Judah speaks to Joseph after Benjamin’s alleged “crime” with stolen cup. What can we learn from here?

We know that Benjamin isn’t guilty of this crime and neither are his brothers – they didn’t steal the cup. Yet Judah starts his speech with these words: “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants!”  What a surprising declaration! As if truly, for a long time, they had hidden their crime, but God found their sin and pinned it on them.

By now, the brothers certainly understood that what was happening was between them and God. They had no reason and no way to justify themselves. The Spirit of God, who was the One at work behind this whole scene, was touching their hearts and Himself directing the dialogue with them. They were not guilty of that particular crime, but they accepted the conviction and chastisement from the One before whom they had long ago so terribly sinned.

This should be our attitude when we come to the Lord with our confession prayers:  Even if at first, we see ourselves innocent regarding some sins, as we stand before God and open our hearts to the rays of His light, He brings things to the surface and confession becomes profound and sincere. That is why the words of Judah that open one of the most beautiful stories of confession, became part of the Selichot prayers.

GMAR CHATIMA TOVA ! – גמר חתימה טובה! – May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for Good!

[1] Charles L. Feinberg, The Scapegoat of Leviticus Sixteen, p.320

[2] The ritual described here was in practice in the second Temple period, but the same order was probably observed in the ritual of the Tabernacle.

[3] Lev.16:4

[4] Lev.16:5-10

[5] Lev.16:20-22

[6] Charles L. Feinberg, The Scapegoat of Leviticus Sixteen, , p.321

[7] This opinion is expressed in the last part of my book “Abraham had two sons” – the part that is called “Sod”(Mystery).

[8] I am very grateful to my dear friend Dorothy Healy who brought my attention to this quotation.

[9] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39b:5-6

[10]  Dorothy Healy, “Bread of Life Torah Studies”, Lev.16-18


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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Paul Kristofferson

    Thank you Julia for this blog, This morning I was searching for some information on Yom Kippur, and now this article will help me to meditate & prepare for this festival. Shalom. Paul Kristofferson

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Paul, I am so glad to hear this article has been helpful. And it’s always good to hear from you! Tzom Kal and Gmar Hatima Tova!

  2. Phil Dick

    Hi Julia,
    I always enjoy reading your articles!
    Regarding the Yom Kippur, I have a question that wasn’t covered by the article:
    Is the sacrifice given with hopes to atone for the sins of the people from the previous year, or is it to atone for sins to be committed in the coming year?

    I have always understood that sacrifice was always meant to atone for the guilt of sins that have already been committed. However, a visiting pastor that had spoken at our church was convinced that it was to atone for sins that are to be committed in the following year. He explains that this allows us to live in God’s grace, and we would be free of the fear of judgement and guilt during the following year.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for you kind words Phil, I am glad you enjoy reading the articles on this blog. Regarding your question: the visiting pastor was wrong, the sacrifice on Yom Kippur atones for the sins of the past year, the sins that have been committed already. Look at the text of Vidui (the confession prayer we read on Yom Kippur) and you see that all the sins that we confess are in the past tense: betrayed … lied … stole etc. Of course, the text didn’t exist in this form then, but it doesn’t matter: this is the Biblical concept, that the atonement is meant for the sins that have been committed already.

  3. Cheryel Lemley-McRoy

    What happened in 30 CE to change the ritual? Is there any explanation in the histories?

    1. Pastor Kathleen Hampton

      Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, was crucified! He WAS the passover lamb who fulfilled all the Old Testament law, including the Day of Atonement. “It is finished!”

    2. Randolph Oran Gonce

      Yeshua became the scape goat, crucified outside the gate, 30 CE

    3. Julia Blum

      One of the probable dates of the crucifixion of Jesus is 30 CE. Of course, this is the question of faith whether one admits this connection, but in any case, I found this quote very interesting and wanted to share it with my readers.

  4. John Ashcraft

    Psalms 118:10-13 allude to the Day of Atonement. Rev 6:12-17; Rev 8:5. It is throughout the scriptures and also at the end of the human race. Did you know that Rabbinic Yom Kippur is 3o days before the Biblical Yom Kippur. Psalms 118 has 3 events: Rapture, Armageddon and the Millennium and no 7 year tribulation between the rapture and Armageddon on the Day of Atonement.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi John, can you please elaborate, what do you mean when you say that Rabbinic Yom Kippur is 30 days before Biblical Yom Kippur?