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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 16

Bridgeway Bible CommentaryBridgeway Bible Commentary

Verses 1-10


Day of Atonement: introduction (16:1-10)

God’s dramatic judgment on Aaron’s two sons (see 10:1-7) showed clearly that the priests needed to act with care and reverence in everything they did, especially inside the tabernacle (that is, in the Holy Place). This chapter goes on to explain that only the high priest could enter the inner sanctuary (the Most Holy Place), and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
Although the regular rituals dealt with sin in various ways, the people were still not perfect and their sacrifices not fully effective. Even the best offerings did not enable the offerers to come into the presence of their God, not even through their representative, the high priest. Therefore, on this one day of the year when entrance into God’s presence was available, all the sins of the previous year were brought before God for his forgiveness and removal, so that the people, through their priestly representative, could enter his presence unhindered.

But the priests also were sinners, and had to make atonement for themselves before they could make it on behalf of others (cf. Hebrews 9:7). The regulations for the day’s proceedings begin by specifying the animals needed (16:1-5) and outlining the main offerings, namely, a sin offering for the priests (6; explained in detail in v. 11-14), and a two-part sin offering for the people (7-10; explained in detail in v. 15-22).

Verses 11-22

Day of Atonement: sacrifices (16:11-22)

Aaron sacrificed the priests’ sin offering at the altar in the tabernacle courtyard, then took fire from this altar along with blood from the sacrifice into the tabernacle (that is, into the tent). He used the fire to burn incense on the golden altar that stood in the Holy Place against the curtain dividing the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. As he drew back this curtain to enter the Most Holy Place, incense from the altar floated through the open curtain and covered the mercy seat (the lid of the ark, the covenant box), the symbolic dwelling place of God. Aaron then sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial animal on and in front of the mercy seat (11-14).
This sprinkling of the blood on the mercy seat reminded the Israelites that mercy, God’s mercy, was their only hope for salvation. In spite of all their sacrifices and other rituals, when they at last reached the climax of their highest religious exercise, they could do nothing but acknowledge that they were helpless sinners, dependent entirely on God’s mercy for their forgiveness.

After completing the ritual for the priests’ sin offering, Aaron came out of the tabernacle-tent into the open courtyard. He offered the people’s sin offering on the altar of sacrifice, and returned into the Most Holy Place with the sacrificial blood to repeat the ritual at the mercy seat. Since everything that human beings have contact with is affected by their sin, the blood of the people’s sin offering was used also to make atonement for all parts of the tabernacle that any person had touched (15-19; cf. Hebrews 9:21-22).

The people’s sin offering consisted of not one goat but two. After sacrificing the first goat and applying its blood inside the tabernacle-tent, Aaron returned to the courtyard to carry out the ritual with the second goat. He laid his hands on its head, confessed over it the sins of the people, and sent it far away into the wilderness to a place from which it could not return. This was apparently a further picture to the people that their sins had been laid on an innocent victim and taken far away from them (20-22).

Although the blood ritual of the annual Day of Atonement had meaning to the Israelite people of Old Testament times, it was still only a shadow or outline of the reality that was to come through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:19; Hebrews 10:1). For the way in which it pictured the sacrificial death of Christ, and for the contrast between its limitations and the perfection of the atoning work of Christ, see Hebrews 9:6-14,Hebrews 9:23-28.

Verses 23-34

Day of Atonement: other details (16:23-34)

Until now the high priest was clothed in the plain white clothes of the ordinary priests (see v. 4). This may have been to emphasize to him the need for humility and the importance of purity in all his representative actions in the ritual of sin-cleansing. Now that atonement for sin had been made, he bathed himself, put on his normal high priestly clothes and offered burnt offerings of consecration, first for the priests, then for the people. All others whose duties brought them into contact with the sin offering during the ritual had likewise to cleanse themselves (23-28).
As for the Israelite people as a whole, they were to participate in this solemn act of confession and atonement in a fitting spirit of shame and humility. It seems that on that day they were to do no work and eat no food (29-34).

Bibliographical Information
Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Leviticus 16". "Fleming's Bridgeway Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bbc/leviticus-16.html. 2005.
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